Matt Kenseth spoiled the field at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday afternoon by taking his No. 20 Toyota to victory lane in an exciting late-race pass for the lead. Kenseth, driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, picked up his first win of the season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“Yeah, it’s really not describable. With only two left, I didn’t think we were probably had a good chance of getting back to victory lane,” said an emotional Kenseth after the race. “It’s been I don’t know how many races – somebody’s probably going to tell me tonight – but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time. We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be and today it was meant to be.”
The 39th career win did not come easy for the series veteran. Kenseth passed the strong car of Denny Hamlin on lap 232 and held the spot until being passed by Chase Elliott on lap 284. With 10 laps remaining, Kenseth re-took the lead from Elliott and was gone from there.
“Well, kept doing them cycles and short runs and we were a little too tight all day, but we were really pretty happy with it and when we got in front, we were just too loose and I got loose on that restart and Chase (Elliott) got by me and as soon as he got by me, it actually made my car better and I saw him get loose and starting to slip, so I knew we were going to have a heck of a race,” Kenseth added.
Elliott came 1.207 seconds why of scoring his first career win in the series and clinching a spot in the Final Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Since the inception of the Playoffs in 2004, it’ll be the first time ever that a Chevrolet will not have a shot at the championship. Elliott will leave Phoenix with a second-place finish.
‘Yeah, for sure. We were so close to having another shot next week. But man, I can’t say enough for our team and our Hooter’s Chevrolet this weekend,” said Elliott after the 312-lap event. “We fought really hard today and gave ourselves a chance. 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 hop I could get to traffic before I started going away. 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.”
In addition to today’s victory, Kenseth goes into the season finale next Sunday, possibly his last ever premier series start, with 10 top five and 17 top 10 finishes through 35 races.
Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top three finishers in Sunday’s Can-Am 500K. Truex started the day in fifth and finished eighth in stage one and fourth in stage two. Having seven wins and 69 Playoff points, Truex came into the weekend already locked into the Final Four at Homestead and just needed a smooth Sunday drive.
Truex will be the only driver racing for their first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship next week.
In addition to Truex, Brad Keselowski, who finished 16th, Kevin Harvick, who finished fifth, and Kyle Busch, who finished seventh, will all be racing for the series championship at Homestead.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today. I am glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure,” said 2012 champion Keselowski. “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.”
Erik Jones, the highest finishing rookie at Phoenix Raceway, held a top 10 spot throughout the three stages and will leave the track with a fourth-place finish.
On-track drama occurred as the laps clicked off for a spot into the Final Four at Homestead. Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott raced door-to-door for the victory when Hamlin made contact with the wall. The No. 11 Toyota showed some smoke and lost numerous positions before a tire finally let go on lap 274.
The incident in turn three ended the day for Hamlin and his shot at racing for the title next week.
“We got ran into the fence by the 24 (Chase Elliott) when we running up front all day,” said Hamlin. “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.”
Hamlin wasn’t the only driver looking to get into the Final Four at Homestead with a win that had issues. The day for Jimmie Johnson ended on lap 149 in turn three due to a right-front tire failure because of a melted bead. The incident ended their day and the seven-time champion finished 39th.
“No, I really didn’t have any warning. I knew I was hard on the brakes, but the run before we didn’t have any issues reported back,” said Johnson after the incident. “So, I felt like I was kind of doing the same thing. Unfortunately, with so few laps to go to the end of the Stage, as soon as I went in the corner and touched the brakes, the right front just blew. So, I hate it for this team. They’ve worked so hard all year long and I’m very proud of their efforts. 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. 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.”
Ryan Blaney will also not advance into the Final Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. Blaney started on the pole and led the field for 11 circuits before being passed by eventual second-place finisher Chase Elliott. The young racer finished the afternoon in 17th.
Non-Playoff driver Kyle Larson recorded his fourth-consecutive DNF on Sunday. The California native, one of the fan-favorites going into the NASCAR Playoffs, developed an engine issue around lap 106. The team came down pit road and went under the hood before parking the car in the garage. The DNF will be will be the second of the season for the team as a result of an engine.
The series will move onto Homestead-Miami Speedway for the season finale. Coverage of the event will begin at 2:30 p.m. ET. on NBC. The Motor Racing Network will carry the live radio broadcast.