By David Morgan, Associate Editor
As the 2017 season was rolling toward its conclusion in November 2017, Matt Kenseth showed he’s still got it. In what was his final race at the one-mile Phoenix oval, Kenseth took it to the youngsters, showing them there’s still plenty in the tank when it comes to driving a race car.
After announcing the week prior that he wouldn’t be returning to the cockpit in 2018, Kenseth came out at Phoenix with guns ablazing, ready to crash the party of the drivers battling it out for a spot in the Championship 4.
Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott appeared to be the drivers to beat as the race played out, with Hamlin leading 193 laps and Elliott running in the top-10, but on lap 270, the last lap run-in the two had at Martinsville two weeks prior came back to haunt Hamlin.
As Hamlin and Elliott raced side-by-side, Elliott squeezed Hamlin into the outside wall, which caused Hamlin’s tire to blow a handful of laps later, eliminating him from championship contention.
“I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” Elliott said. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose to race me and that’s the way I see it.”
On the ensuing restart, Elliott was able to take over the lead, but lurking in the weeds was Kenseth, who set his sights on Elliott and the race lead. As the laps counted down, Kenseth closed the gap between the two and finally passed him with 10 laps to go in the race.
From that point on Kenseth was able to stretch his lead over Elliott, eventually crossing the line 1.207 seconds ahead to claim the emotional victory – the 39th of his career.
After his victory burnout, the 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.”
With the thrill of victory, there is always the agony of defeat and that Sunday was just not Elliott’s day. While he was able to lead 34 laps and appeared to be in the catbird seat as the race entered its final stages, the handling went away on Elliott’s Chevrolet and he was resigned to his fifth runner-up finish of the season.
“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.”
With Kenseth winning and keeping Elliott out of championship contention, as well as Hamlin falling out, the big winner in that shuffle was Brad Keselowski, who was able to punch his ticket into the Championship 4 despite struggling to a 16th place finish.
“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.”