The Championship Four grid for Homestead was set at the Phoenix Raceway on Sunday. Entering the Can-Am 500, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. had clinched spots in the final four, leaving one spot for the likes of Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Brad Keselowski to claim. As the rivalry between Elliott and Hamlin flared, it was Matt Kenseth who played playoff spoiler as he drove to victory in what is likely to be his penultimate Cup race.
Blaney won his second career Cup Series pole for the race and started alongside Hamlin; entering the weekend, Blaney was seven points out of the Championship Four, while Hamlin was ahead of Blaney by just two points. Elliott quickly made the move on Hamlin to take 2nd after just three laps, while Kyle Larson entered the picture in 4th; Blaney lost the lead to Elliott on lap 12 and began falling, dropping to 8th by lap 24. Hamlin closed in on Elliott and took the lead on lap 28, building his lead over eventual 2nd-placed Larson by a second.
Larson took the lead on lap 67 and went on to win the stage. Behind him were Hamlin, Elliott, Harvick, Kenseth, Ky. Busch, Erik Jones, Truex, Ryan Newman, and Johnson. Blaney and Keselowski were the lone playoff drivers to not receive stage points as they finished 13th and 17th, respectively.
Hamlin and Kenseth won the race off pit road to lead the field to the start of Stage #2 on lap 89. Joe Gibbs Racing cars dominated the top three when Busch joined Hamlin and Kenseth, though Larson took 2nd on lap 89 and started gaining on Hamlin. However, Larson pitted on lap 104 for an engine problem and was forced to retire for the fourth consecutive week. On lap 149, Johnson saw his hopes of competing for an eighth Cup title come to an end when he blew a tire and hit the wall. As Johnson pulled his car into the garage, Hamlin won the stage; Kenseth, Jones, Truex, Ky. Busch, Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Newman, Elliott, and Bowyer rounded out the top ten. Once again, Blaney (12th) and Keselowski (14th) finished outside the stage points range.
Stage #3 began on lap 158 as Hamlin and Kenseth led the way. As the stage progressed, Hamlin dominated as he built a solid lead over his teammate; by lap 187, he was maintaining a .915-second lead over Kenseth, which was extended to over 2.4 seconds by lap 215. However, the margin evaporated when Trevor Bayne slammed into turn four on lap 230 to bring out the caution. Kenseth was the first off pit road and inherited the lead from Hamlin for the restart with 77 laps to go in the race. After three laps of green flag racing, the caution came out once again, this time for debris. This led to another start with 69 remaining as Hamlin and Kenseth battled for the lead until Truex joined the fight by passing Kenseth for 2nd.
On lap 251, Chris Buescher cut a tire and spun into the turn three wall. Parts of his car’s heated brake rotors flew off the car and between the outside retaining wall and SAFER barrier, igniting the region into fire in two separate areas. NASCAR summoned the red flag to facilitate extinguishing and track cleanup; the red flag lasted five minutes and three seconds. For the restart with 54 to go, the top ten stayed out as Kenseth and Hamlin remained as the front row. After another three laps of green flag racing, Cole Whitt hit the turn four wall to produce another yellow flag.
Another restart commenced on lap 264 as Kenseth led and Truex took 2nd from Elliott, leaving him to duel with Hamlin for 3rd. The two drivers – whose history with each other was certainly known in the NASCAR world after their confrontation at Martinsville two weeks earlier – clashed with one another and eventually made contact as they exited turn four. The contact sent Hamlin into the wall, causing his car to emit smoke. On lap 276, Hamlin hit the wall again to bring out the caution as his championship campaign came to a halt.
“It just proves to the people who thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances,” Hamlin commented.
The final restart took place on lap 282; as Kenseth took off, Elliott battled with Truex for 2nd, holding off the points leader and making his way towards the #20. Two laps later, Elliott passed Kenseth for the lead, but was unable to keep it as Kenseth’s late run allowed him to pull ahead with nine laps to go. Elliott could not catch up to the leader as Kenseth pulled away to win his 39th career race and redeem himself after being eliminated a round prior. Elliott – now eliminated – finished 2nd, followed by Truex, Jones, Harvick, McMurray, Ky. Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Aric Almirola, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski (16th), Blaney (17th), Hamlin (35th), and Johnson (39th) finished outside the top ten, though Keselowski was able to advance to the Championship Four.
The victory proved to be emotional for the 2003 champion, who had announced a week earlier that his Cup career was likely over following the 2017 season. Unable to find a competitive ride for 2018 and being ousted from the #20 in place of Jones, the Can-Am 500 win is a strong way to end his career. Phoenix Raceway honored Kenseth with a sign of appreciation along the track wall.
“Everybody dreams of going out a winner,” Kenseth stated.
Next Sunday, Ky. Busch, Harvick, Truex, and Keselowski will battle it out to become the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson is the defending race winner.
Featured image from @NASCAR