Payback, fire and tears, the penultimate race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season had it all. After 312 dramatic laps, 45-year-old Matt Kenseth was back on top as his career winds down, denying Chase Elliott from making the Championship 4 as Brad Keselowski takes the final spot. A cut tire ends Jimmie Johnson’s title hopes, leaving no Hendrick Motorsports driver fighting for the title.
Age was just a number after Matt Kenseth reemerged in victory lane in the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona Sunday, snapping a 51-race winless streak. The 45-year-old battled 21-year-old Chase Elliott for the lead and squeezed by him in turn three with 10 laps remaining, rekindling his late race magic at the twilight of his illustrious career.
After a season of heartbreak and uncertainty, Kenseth crossed the line in first for the 39th time and perhaps his most emotional victory.
Kenseth’s victory comes a week after announcing he’ll step away from racing in NASCAR’s premiere series after failing to secure a competitive 2018 ride as 21-year-old Erik Jones will replace him in the No. 20 Toyota.
With everything that’s transpired this season, Kenseth climbed on top of his roof, savoring the moment before expressing tears of joy during his post-race interview.
“I don’t know what to say, except for thank the lord. It has been an amazing journey and I know I’m a big baby right now, but I just got one race left. Everybody dreams of going out a winner,” Kenseth said. “We won today. Nobody will take that away from us. It was a heck of a race with Chase there. Golly, thanks to DeWalt, Circle K, Toyota and all our other sponsors and of course Joe Gibbs Racing for a great five years. It’s been quite the journey.”
Kenseth compared his latest win to his first Xfinity (then known as Busch Grand National) Series at Rockingham Feb. 21, 1998 in a thrilling bump and run finish with Tony Stewart.
“Nothing can replace my first win where we weren’t expected to win. It was a special day,” Kenseth added. “The way this year has gone, I wasn’t really expecting to win today. This is a special one, it means a lot.”
His fellow friend and 2000 rookie rival Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and teammate Kyle Busch were among the drivers who congratulated the 2003 champion for proving the middle age veterans can get the job done against today’s young lions.
Kenseth’s late race maneuver also decided the outcome of who gets the final spot in the Championship 4. Not only Elliott was denied from his first win after finishing second for the seventh time in his career, he’ll have to wait another year to compete for the championship at Homestead.
Elliott also deprived his foe Denny Hamlin from making the final round after running aggressively all day. It all boiled down near the end of the race as both made contact heading into the turn four. Moments later, Hamlin cut down a tire and crashed in turn three on lap 276, ending his day in 35th after leading 193 laps.
Elliott described both his elimination and retaliating Hamlin.
“Our car was really fast on those short runs after a caution and after pit cycles on tires. It fired off really good, and we did pretty good on the short run all day and got really tight as the run went long. And once the rubber laid back down, I was just hanging on and hoping I could get to traffic before (the car) started going away,” Elliott said. “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.”
“I’m going to race guys how they race me and keep a smile on my face regardless,” Elliott on racing Hamlin. “I’m happy to race guys how they choose they race me and that’s how I see it.”
Elliott’s elimination meant a 16th place finish by Brad Keselowski was good enough to advance into the final round and compete for his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Keselowski was relived after surviving a grueling race and hopes for a better performance at Homestead.
“We probably had great speed at Martinsville. Great execution at Texas and great luck today. You’d like to have all three of them on the same day. That’s really how you win, but happy to get through (the Championship 4). Not really the day we wanted to have to get through. We just didn’t have what we needed to run out front,” Keselowski said. “The Miller Lite Ford doesn’t have a scratch on it. We tried to just run a smart race all day. We knew we didn’t have the speed, so you just tried to be smart and put yourself in a position to have an opportunity for good things to happen.
“We caught some breaks. The No. 11 car and all the Toyotas were just screaming fast and on speed they certainly deserved to transfer. For whatever reason that’s not how it played out. We’ve been on the bad side of that and this year we’re on the good side. Hopefully we can carry that into Homestead.”
Keselowski will battle against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr. for the championship with Truex being the only driver without a championship.
Jimmie Johnson’s quest of a record-breaking eighth title was terminated after cutting down a right front tire and hit the turn three wall on lap 148. Johnson was credited with a 39th place effort out of the 40 competitors.
Johnson said he was hard on the breaks, but received no warning about a tire going down.
“I hate it for this team. They’ve worked so hard all year long and I’m very proud of their efforts. I know it’s not the results that we want, but we’re Hendrick strong,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of my Team 48 and very thankful for the support. Unfortunately, we won’t have a chance to make eight (championships) this year, but I will come back next year and try real hard.”
The race was slowed down 7 times for 41 laps including the season’s 20th red flag after two separate parts of the SAFER Barrier caught fire in turns two and three on the 253rd lap while cleaning up debris from a two-crash involving Chris Buescher and Daniel Suarez the lap before. Buescher’s brake rotor was the result of the fires.
Truex came home in third, followed by Jones and Harvick rounding out the top 5. Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Aric Almirola and Dale Jr. all earned top 10 finishes.
35 races have been decided and it all comes down to 400 miles, 267 laps and four drivers fighting for one championship. It’ll all unfold in the annual Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida.
Johnson won his record-tying seventh championship after capturing his first win at the circuit Nov. 20, 2016. Since the playoff system debuted in 2014, the champion was also victorious in the 400-mile race.