By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Each week, NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway
Matt Kenseth – The old man has still got it. In what may have been his final race at Phoenix, Kenseth took it to the youngsters, showing them he has still got plenty in the tank when it comes to driving a race car.
After announcing last week that he wouldn’t be returning to the cockpit in 2018, Kenseth came out at Phoenix with guns ablazing, scoring an emotional win by passing Chase Elliott with 10 laps to go en route to the 39th win of his career. A usually stoic Kenseth then got out of his car with both fists in the air and pointed skyward before climbing down with tears in his eyes, showing just how much the win meant to him.
“I don’t know what to say except thank the Lord,” said Kenseth. “It’s been an amazing journey and I know I’m a big baby right now. Just have one race left and everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. That was a heck of a battle with Chase (Elliott) there. I have to thank Circle K, Toyota, DeWalt and all our partners. Thanks to JGR, it’s been a great five years. It’s been quite the journey in this 20.
“It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know? You always feel like you can get the job done, but, you know, if you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie, so we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today, so we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”
Brad Keselowski – It wasn’t pretty, but the title hopes of the 2012 series champion are still alive after Phoenix.
After starting back in 16th place, Keselowski had hoped to move forward through the field as the race progressed, but he did the exact opposite by sliding backwards instead with an ill-handling car while his championship rivals were running up front and threatening to derail his chances to advance.
Still struggling with his car late in the race, he caught his first break when Denny Hamlin crashed out, putting him back in the top-four in points. Though he dropped back out with Chase Elliott in the lead, Matt Kenseth taking the lead with 10 laps to go and going on to win the race was enough to give Keselowski the points advantage to make it through to Homestead.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” said Keselowski. “I am glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure. I am just looking forward to going to Homestead. This feels a little bit like Christmas. Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive and it ended up paying off in the end.”
Race Fans – The penultimate race of the season had it all. Five drivers battling for the one final spot in the championship race, the Denny Hamlin-Chase Elliott feud spilling over into Phoenix, drama with who’s in and who’s out, and an old veteran showing he could still get it done.
Not to mention a SAFER barrier catching on fire mid-race.
Over the last few years, Phoenix has become the thrilling race that the regular season finale at Richmond was billed to be but never lived up to. On Sunday, the Can-Am 500 lived up to the hype and then some. So, the big winner of Sunday’s race was the race fans that got to see a highly entertaining race from start to finish.
Chevrolet – For the first time since 1999, Chevrolet will be shut out of the top-four in points at season’s end after the three drivers they had in the playoffs (Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson) all found themselves eliminated at some point in the postseason.
Johnson and Elliott made it all the way to Phoenix, but sub-par finishes in the first two races of the Round of 8 meant that the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers would have to win Sunday’s race to keep their championship hopes alive.
Elliott was in contention for the win throughout the day, leading three times for 34 laps, including 19 laps late in the race, but it was not to be as he was passed by eventual winner Matt Kenseth with 10 laps to go, dropping him to second at the finish. Despite scoring his fifth runner-up finish of the season, it wasn’t enough to get him to Homestead.
“We were so close to having another shot next week,” said Elliott. “But man, I can’t say enough for our team and our Hooter’s Chevrolet this weekend. We fought really hard today and gave ourselves a chance.
“It’s just such a bummer. I was telling my guys we’ll get it right someday, or I’ll get it right someday. We’ve had so many good opportunities and at some point, we’ve just got to close.”
Johnson found an early exit when a melted bead on his tire sent him hard into the Turn 3 wall on lap 149, causing heavy damage to his No. 48 car and sending him to the garage with his hopes of an eighth title gone up in smoke.
Limping into the playoffs with next to no momentum after a lackluster second half of the season, Johnson knew his team needed to pick up the pace to be able to make it to Homestead and compete for another championship. In the end, Johnson’s day went from bad to worse as he never even cracked the top-10 before his encounter with the wall at the end of Stage 2.
“It’s obviously not the result that we want, but we’re Hendrick strong and I’m proud of my Team 48 and very thankful for this sport that Lowe’s and Kobalt gives us, and Chevrolet,” said Johnson. “Unfortunately, we won’t have a chance to make eight (championship titles) this year, but we’ll come back next year and try real hard.
“I’m disappointed for sure. The last couple of months we’ve been staying alive and at this stage with the Round of 8 and then the Round of 4, you can’t just stay alive. You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders and we just haven’t been there, unfortunately.”
As for Larson, his streak of bad luck that started with an engine failure at Kansas to bring his hopes of advancing in the playoffs to an end continued all the way through the Round of 8 as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver suffered more mechanical issues just 105 laps into the race to hand him his fourth straight DNF.
This go around, it wasn’t a playoff spot getting taken away, but a likely win as Larson was one of the fastest cars early on in the race, winning Stage 1 after leading 12 laps.
“It felt exactly like what happened at Kansas, probably a little bit worse,” said Larson. “So, I don’t know, it’s unfortunate. I haven’t blown up an engine since my first two Cup starts in 2013, now I’ve had three this season. It’s a little disappointing and definitely a bad time of year to have that stuff happen. Hopefully, we can rebound from it and Hendrick (Motorsports) can learn from it to prevent it from happening in the future.
“It’s just unfortunate to have four DNF’s in a row; two from engines and then two from wrecks. It’s a crappy way to end the season. I thought I had, by far, the best car here today, so I was really happy about that. The Refresh Your Car! Chevrolet was definitely the best car I’ve had at Phoenix. So, I’m happy about that. I just hate that we don’t really get a shot to race for the win.”
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin looked to be in the catbird seat to be able to advance at Phoenix, leading laps throughout the race and finding himself up front when it mattered the most, but in racing, what goes around can come back around to bite you. And that’s exactly what happened to Hamlin.
As you might remember, Hamlin and Chase Elliott had a run-in at Martinsville that ended with Hamlin spinning Elliott from the lead and the two having a heated confrontation after the race. Fast forward to Sunday and Elliott found himself right behind Hamlin.
After harassing Hamlin for a few laps, the two made contact off of Turn 4, causing Hamlin to hit the wall, with the damage enough to cut his tire down a few laps later. Hamlin slapped the wall in Turn 3 and his day would be done as he was relegated to a 35th place finish, eliminating him from championship contention.
“We had a fast car all day,” said Hamlin. “We did essentially our job all day long. We put ourselves in good position. Things just didn’t work there at the end.
“We got ran into the fence by the 24 (Chase Elliott) when we running up front all day. We had a bad pit stop and then we didn’t really make any adjustments. Our car got really tight and we were just battling all we could to keep our track position. We weren’t and we allowed out competition to get close to us.”
Ryan Blaney – Despite scoring the pole and leading the opening 11 laps of the race, things wouldn’t stay that way for the No. 21 team by the time the checkered flag flew. Blaney found himself in the top-five in the closing laps, but a call to stay out on track and maintain their track position would ultimately be the team’s downfall on a must-win day.
Blaney would wind up fading to 17th place at the finish and would be eliminated from the playoffs.
“We just had no tires,” said Blaney. “We were debating whether to pit or not there and just didn’t, so that made us fall back. That stinks. I thought we could have stayed up and you never know what could have happened, but we just never had the car all day to compete up front. We did a good job on restarts. I thought we were decent on restarts all day. We were able to start up towards the front and just didn’t work out for us. We still have one more race to go with the Wood Brothers group, so hopefully we can go and have a good run at Miami.
“It’s disappointing, but at the same time we have a lot to be proud of for sure. The nine weeks that we had is something to be proud of. It’s a shame we’re not racing for the championship, but we can still try to win the race.”