By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
An entire season of blood sweat and tears for Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team was wiped out in an instant late in the Can-Am 500 at Pheonix International Raceway.
Kenseth started the day from the 10th position, and early on his car was fast but it just lacked a little bit of front grip. When the driver made his first pit stop on lap 88, his crew chief Jason Ratcliff made great changes and the car was dialed in the remainder of the afternoon.
On the ensuing restart, Kenseth would come to the green flag inside the top-five and he would begin stalking the dominant car of the day — Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet.
Just after the halfway point of the race, Kenseth began to really come alive, as he would get by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to move to the second position.
Kenseth would take over the lead of the race on lap 262 and it looked like he would win to get himself into the Sprint Cup Series Championship Race at Homestead next week. However with three laps remaining, Michael McDowell slammed into the outside wall, which brought out the final caution period of the race.
When the race went back to green, Kenseth held the lead. But going into turn one, Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch tapped Bowman which sent the No. 88 into Kenseth’s left rear quarter panel. The contact sent Kenseth spinning out of the lead and into the wall. Kenseth would limp around to finish 21st, the final car on the lead lap. But finishing the race wouldn’t be enough to advance to the Championship finale as Kenseth was eliminated in heartbreaking fashion.
Kenseth took to disappointment in stride after climbing from his battered No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry.
“That was a tough 15 minutes,” Kenseth shrugged. “I’m proud of my team they did a great job. That’s probably the best car I’ve had at Pheonix — probably ever. Good pit stops, good execution on pit road. It came down to a mistake there at the end that got us. Obviously it’s more than disappointing. We had the race in control even that last restart and ended up giving it away.
Kenseth turned down on Bowman because he was told he was clear on the radio by his spotter. And Kenseth should have been clear, had it not been for a huge shove given to Bowman by Kenseth’s teammate.
After climbing from his car, Busch was apologetic for playing a role in the end of his teammate’s championship fight.
“Ultimately my contact sent another car into [Kenseth],” Busch explained.
Kenseth’s 2016 campaign started off quite rocky. Over the first 10 races of the season, Kenseth had just two top-10 finishes. It was looking like a season to forget for the veteran driver from Cambridge, Wisconsin, but then a couple of weeks later, Kenseth got his first win of the year at Dover.
Seven races later, Kenseth would cement himself as a driver to watch for the championship when he won again in New Hampshire.
Once the Chase started, the 2003 Champion looked to be in championship form. Kenseth had recorded seven top-10 finishes through the eight Chase races before Sunday’s race in Phoenix. He had a car capable of winning again Sunday until misfortune struck.
Now Kenseth will try to win Homestead next week as he attempts to build momentum for the 2017 season.