Kenseth nabs first win, Keselowski advances
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth claimed his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of 2017 in the next-to-last event of the season and Brad Keselowski nailed down the final spot in nest weekend’s championship race.
Kenseth took his final lead of the race with a pass of Chase Elliott with nine laps remaining in his penultimate race with Joe Gibbs Racing and won the Can-Am 500 on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
“I don’t know what to say except thank the Lord,” said Kenseth, who does not have a ride yet for next season. “It’s been an amazing journey. Just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner. We won today. Nobody can take that away from us.”
Elliott held off Martin Truex Jr. to take the runner-up spot, but it wasn’t enough to advance to the Championship Four of the playoffs next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We were so close to having another shot next week,” Elliott said. “But, man, I can’t say enough for our team and our Hooters’ Chevrolet this weekend. 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 hoped 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.”
Truex finished third, Erik Jones was fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.
Keselowski struggled through most of the race, winding up 16th at the finish, but headed into Phoenix with enough of a point cushion to join already-clinched drivers Harvick, Truex and Kyle Busch in the Championship Four next weekend.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” Keselowski said. “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.”
Kenseth first led when he got off pit road ahead of Denny Hamlin during a lap 228 caution. Hamlin hesitated pulling out of his pit stop, not getting a signal when pit service was completed.
After dominating the race to that point, Hamlin retired in the final 50 laps after contact with Elliott gave him a tire rub that led to a blown tires, sending his car hard into the wall.
As a result, Hamlin, like Elliott, was eliminated from the playoffs.
Kenseth continued to lead until Elliott was able to pass him with 28 laps remaining.
Kyle Larson and Hamlin were stage winners in the first 150 laps of the race, with Larson taking the first 75-lap stage and Hamlin the second.
Hamlin got out of the pits first to take the lead at the start of the second stage and maintained his advantage throughout the stage. He also led more than half of the opening stage.
After pole-sitter Ryan Blaney and Elliott led laps early, Hamlin took the lead on Lap 26 but lost that lead to Larson on Lap 68.
Not long after winning the opening stage, Larson wound up in the garage, retired from the race because of an engine issue.
“I think I was passing a lap earlier, and when I lifted, I heard it start to blow up,” Larson said. “I was hoping it wasn’t, but by the time I got back to the gas, I knew it was done.
“It’s just unfortunate to have four DNFs in a row — two from engines and then, two from wrecks. It’s a crappy way to end the season. I thought I had, by far, the best car here today, so I was really happy about that. The Refresh Your Car! Chevrolet was definitely the best car I’ve had at Phoenix, so I’m happy about that. I just hate that we don’t really get a shot to race for the win.”
Championship contender Jimmie Johnson’s chances of an eighth Cup Series title ended with a right-front tire problem that sent him into the wall with one lap remaining in the second stage.
Needing a win to advance to the Championship Four at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19, Johnson took his car to the garage.
“I really didn’t have any warning,” Johnson said. “I knew I was hard on the brakes, but the run before, we didn’t have any issues reported back, 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 this year, but we’ll come back next year and try real hard.”
The fourth driver eliminated from the playoffs was Blaney.
NOTES: Ryan Blaney dominated the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday, leading 147 of 200 laps, winning two stages and finishing second. ... Kevin Harvick is the winningest driver at Phoenix with eight victories, including four straight between 2013 and 2015. His most recent win at PIR came in March 2016. ... Joey Logano won last year’s Can-Am 500. ... Ryan Newman won the most recent race at Phoenix in March 2017.