MENCS: Busch wins in Phoenix, Big 3 Survive crazy day at ISM Raceway

The Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway marked the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) race at the upgraded speedway in Phoenix, Arizona, and the final race in the MENCS Playoffs Round of 8. With only 312 miles scheduled before the final event, tensions were high and Playoff drama surrounded the speedway all day.

When the initial green flag waved on pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, the driver who sat 3 points above the elimination line cruised to a 1-second lead over must-win driver, Chase Elliott. Harvick led the first 72 laps of Stage 1, and 3 laps before the green-and-white-checkered flag, Harvick’s Busch Light Ford Fusion cut a right front tire. Chase Elliott assumed the race lead with Harvick limping around the 1-mile oval. With the green flag still out, Harvick had to enter a closed pit, but Harvick only lost a single lap. Elliott won the stage.

In the opening laps of Stage 2, Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch battled for the lead, and with either up front it would knock Harvick outside of the Championship 4. However, shortly after the beginning of Stage 2, Playoff driver Joey Logano blew a tire through the speedway’s dog-leg on the front straightaway. The crash didn’t hurt Logano’s title hopes after his win at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago. A result of the caution was that Harvick received the free pass, and gained his lap back. Once the race got back underway, Clint Bowyer blew a tire on lap 133. When pit road opened, Kurt Busch led the field onto the lane.

NASCAR held Kurt a lap because they saw the No. 41 Fusion pass the pace car entering pit lane, which promoted Martin Truex, Jr. in the lead shortly before the stage end. Kyle Busch ran Truex down, passed the No. 78 and won Stage 2.

During a green flag cycle woth about 80 laps remaining, Tanner Berryhill in Obaika Racing’s No. 97 spun entering pit lane, causing a caution. Several drivers were trapped a lap down, but took the wave around before the green flag. Chase Elliott was caught with speeding, and joined the wave around cars at the rear of the field for the restart.

On Lap 262, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s No. 17 Fusion spun viciously into turn 1. The red flag was put out for 10 minutes. The following restart shook up the remainder of the race.

Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin drove into turn 1 on the restart, but Hamlin’s No. 11 Camry couldn’t stick to the center of the track’s turn 2 and slammed Kurt Busch’s No. 41 into the wall. Busch, who was stuck in the wall in a four-wide situation down the backstraightaway, shot into Hamlin, spinning the No. 11 around. Kurt spun, too into Chase Elliott’s door, taking most of the No. 9’s sheet metal of with him. Kurt Busch’s car wasn’t repaired during the 6-minute repair clock, eliminating Busch from a shot at the Championship 4. The crash brought out a red flag, 10 and a half minutes.

With over 35 laps to go, NASCAR confirmed that Kyle Busch was safe on points, and the Joe Gibbs driver nabbed the lead from his teammate. Kevin Harvick was running third with 30 laps to go and was comfortable in the points, but if Aric Almirola won the race, the No. 4 would be eliminated, with Almirola running down Harvick. Almirola and Kyle Busch were on four fresh tires, with Harvick and second place Larson, on two fresh.

With 27 laps remaining, Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Camaro caught fire and spun in turn 2. Bowman blew an engine and the car erupted into flames. The tenth caution of the day brought out the second red flag, this one lasting nearly 6 minutes. Once the yellow came back out, Larson pitted to fix a loose wheel, which moved Harvick up to second, and Almirola in third, the favored position of the weekend.

The race restarted with 20 to go, but shortly after the caution would come out for Berryhill yet again. However, Almirola passed Harvick, essentially having the two swap positions. Just past the 3 hour make of race time, the green flag waved with 12 to go. Brad Keselowski got around the two Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, trying to chase down Kyle Busch, meanwhile Almirola tried to hold off Kyle Larson for third just in case the two leaders tangled. With 5 laps to go, Larson got around Almirola, and Keselowski trailed Busch by 0.7 seconds.

Kyle Busch was able to hold off Keselowski’s quicker car and score his eighth win of the 2018 MENCS season and automatically clinch a spot in the Championship 4.

When Busch’s smoke cleared from celebratory doughnuts, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex, Jr. knew they would advance to the Championship 4 next week at Homestead-Miami and seek their second MENCS title. The three are joined by Joey Logano who looks to clinch his first.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season wraps up the season and crown the champion, next Sunday, November 18 at 2:30PM EST on NBC and NBCSN.