The NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway Sunday afternoon (11/12) was full of hopes, drama and vindication. Matt Kenseth won the Can-Am 500 to set the Championship Four for the final race in the playoffs.
The race started with five drivers in the Round of Eight racing for the final spot in the Championship Four final race to determine the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion.
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. started the race knowing they were locked in for a chance at the championship either due to wins in the Round of Eight (Kyle and Kevin) or total number of points (Martin). The other five drivers had different paths to claiming that last spot available in the final four. Some drivers had to win to get in.
One driver, Brad Keselowski, just needed to maintain his lead in points over the other drivers. Denny Hamlin needed to close the gap of 19 points between him and Brad and then finish the race in front of Brad. Both of these scenarios also hinged on none of the other three drivers in contention to advance winning the race.
The first stage of the race went green for the entire 75 laps with Kyle Larson finishing first with Denny Hamlin coming across the line second to claim nine bonus points. Brad Keselowski was not in the top 10 at the end of the stage and therefore did not score any bonus points. Denny’s bonus points brought the gap between him and Brad to just 10.
The second stage of the race went green until the last lap of the stage. When the yellow flag flew Denny was in the lead and scored the stage win to claim the 10 bonus points with Brad again gaining no bonus points. That put the two drivers even and if no other contending Chase Grid driver won the race, whichever of these two were in front of the other would earn that final spot in the NASCAR Championship Four.
Denny looked as though he could not only finish in front of Brad, but potentially winning the race outright. Denny led a race high 193 of the 312 lap race. One of the other cars that looked strong all afternoon was the #24 driven by Chase Elliott. Chase was able to race to the lead of the field a couple of times early in the race. However, as the race progressed to the final stage and laps, both Denny and Chase appeared to need adjustments to their cars if they were going to have a chance to win.
“Flashback” a couple of weeks when Chase was leading the race at Martinsville late in the race. Denny put his bumper to Chase’s bumper resulting in the #24 spinning out, crashing and taking away his chance of scoring his first win the NASCAR Cup Series and earning an automatic advance to the Championship Four. After the race when Denny was asked about the incident, he stated that he was just racing hard for the win and a chance to advance to the Championship Four.
Now, back up to yesterday’s race at Phoenix. The drivers were racing for position as adjustments had been made to the #24 and Chase was moving forward to race for the win. Chase and Denny were side-by-side with the #11 on the outside. Chase took a turn wide to force the #11 up the track and take the position. Denny ended up getting into the wall and a lap later blew a tire to end his chance at advancing to the Championship Four. After the race when asked about it Chase’s response was that he would race other drivers the way they race him.
Chase continued on in the race after Denny’s crash and the final caution of the seven during the race to take over the lead from Matt Kenseth with just 29 laps left in the race. However, Matt fought back to re-claim the lead with just 10 laps remaining. Matt was able to hold the lead for those final 10 laps and claim his first win of the 2017 season and his second win at Phoenix Raceway. It was announced earlier this season that Matt would not return in 2018 to race the #20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt made it known just a few weeks ago that he has yet to secure a driving job to start the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and would be taking a hiatus from driving for and undetermined length of time as a result. Perhaps this win will help Matt secure a ride.
Chase Elliott falls just short of getting his first win in the NASCAR Cup Series and advancing to the Championship Four with his second place finish Sunday. Martin Truex Jr. claimed a third place finish st Phoenix Raceway. Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick finished in fourth and fifth places respectively. See the complete race results for the Can-Am 500 here.
Following the Can-Am 500 the points for the were reset with the Championship Four all even at 5000 each. That makes Kevin Harvick the leader followed by Kyle Busch in second, Martin Truex Jr. in third and Brad Keselowski claiming the last spot in the Championship Four in fourth place. Chase Elliott is the fifth driver in the point standings. See the complete Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series point standings here.
This weekend’s race will conclude the 2017 season. The driver that finishes the highest among the Championship Four will claim the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series title, plain and simple. The remaining 36 drivers on the track will be racing to finish the season in fifth place and down in the standings.
By: Buck Stevens