Who’s in the headline – The cutoff race before Homestead-Miami Speedway was bitter for Matt Kenseth last year. This season, it is extra sweet for him, as he scored his 39th victory in what could be the penultimate NASCAR race of his career. Kenseth ran down Chase Elliott with 10 laps to go to position himself for the victory. Kyle Larson won the first stage then blew an engine. Denny Hamlin won the second stage and wrecked out with 35 laps to go.
What happened – Ryan Blaney qualified on pole and led the first 11 laps before dropping precipitously through the field. Elliott took the lead from Blaney, led for 15 of 16 laps before Hamlin took the top spot for 40 laps. Larson eventually pried the point away from Hamlin on lap 68 and went on to win the first stage. Hamlin led the entire second stage after winning the race off pit lane. Tire issues began to rear their head during the final stage as Trevor Bayne, Chris Buescher and Cole Whitt each had tire issues.
Elliott and Hamlin had a heated battle as the laps were winding down. After Elliott gave Hamlin a couple warning bumps, he passed Hamlin. Coming out of Turn 4, Hamlin tried and Elliott banged doors, bouncing the No. 11 machine into the outside wall. The end result was a flat tire for Hamlin that put him in the wall and out of the race. On the restart for his caution, Elliott harassed Kenseth and eventually passed him for the lead on lap 284. Elliott led for 19 laps but his handle went away and Kenseth tracked him back down, passed him and went on to win.
Why you should care – Hamlin came into Phoenix at a 19-point deficit to Brad Keselowski. By the end of the second stage, he erased the deficit and had a far better car. Keselowski was in scramble mode with a sub-par car that was destined to finish mid pack. Hamlin’s contact with Elliott not only cost him a shot at the win, it knocked him out of Homestead and gave Keselowski an easy ride to get there. Jimmie Johnson was never really in contention for a win on Sunday and wound up blowing a tire early in the event to eliminate any hope of a Cinderella run to the title. Elliott had to win to get in at Homestead but finished second for the fifth time this year and will have to wait for a shot at his first title. Aside from leading the first 11 laps, Blaney was never a factor in the race and thus eliminated from title contention.
What your friends are talking about – Everyone is talking about the contact between Elliott and Hamlin and trying to equate it to retaliation for Martinsville Speedway. The bottom line is Hamlin wrecked Elliott at Martinsville. Elliott squeezed Hamlin to the wall but left him space. Hamlin continued after their contact at Phoenix without a caution flying. Elliott was facing the wrong way against the wall at Martinsville.
The Kenseth story has been shining a spotlight on the state of the sport that has been analyzed here before. The sport has evolved from owners searching for talent and finding sponsorship to give them a ride, to owners with their hand out taking whatever fat check they can receive from drivers who want to be in their cars. It is such a shame that there are many drivers out there who can’t get a ride based on talent. There are exceptions, with Daniel Hemric, Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr. working their way to the top rankings thanks to their talent alone. They are the exception to the rule these days and that is a shame for a champion like Kenseth who can obviously still race and win.
Barney Visser, the owner of Furniture Row Racing, suffered a heart attack Saturday, Nov. 4. He underwent successful bypass surgery last Monday, Nov. 6. Based on recommended recovery timeframes, Visser was not in Phoenix and will not attend championship weekend in Homestead. Thoughts and prayers go out to Visser from all of the Fronststretch family.
While the driver/sponsor lineup for the No. 10 at Stewart-Haas Racomg is set for 2018, the No. 41 ride is still unsettled at this time. Tony Stewart said last weekend that they were still optimistic that Kurt Busch would be in the car next season. They have also not set their crew chief lineup for 2018 either. Depending on which driver is in which car will ultimately dictate which crew chiefs are paired with which drivers.
Crew Chief Bootie Barker will not return to lead the No. 13 ride for Germain Racing in 2018. Chris Andrews and Scott Whitehead will also finish 2017 with Barker, but will not return for 2018.
Frontstretch also wants to send condolences to the family of Jackie Ward. Ward was a longtime competitor at Myrtle Beach Speedway. He passed away Friday night while competing at the historic half mile race track.
Who is mad – As calm as he was after the race, Hamlin is obviously mad at this point. He was still in position to make the finals in Homestead until the contact with Elliott. Phoenix has been his downfall for years. While his results haven’t necessarily been terrible the effect on his mindset heading to Homestad in the past has been harmed by Phoenix. This year, it is worse because he had the final four spot in his grasp and Phoenix took it away. Hamlin still has years to go before hanging up the helmet but missing out on opportunities like this season could come back to haunt him years from now.
It is a rare moment when the winner of the race ends up in the Who’s Mad section, but Kenseth has to be pissed. He is a champion driver with 39 career wins and just won the next to last race of the season. Were it not for a bonehead move by a crew member, he’s racing at Homestead for a title. Kenseth has the talent but he doesn’t have a big money sponsor to bring to a team so he’s out of a ride because he chooses not to run a back marker. Perhaps if someone gets injured in 2018 he can come back and win a race or two.
Who is happy – Keselowski is ecstatic at this point. Aside from winning to advance, nothing could feel much better than having a terrible day and seeing the competitor who is preventing you from advancing on the hook as the laps are winding down. Keselowski may be the underdog of the four going to Homestead but last year, Johnson was the unlikely entrant at Homestead. He had never won there, hadn’t had a top five since 2010, and won the race and the title. Will history repeat itself?
Phoenix was a race for short timers. Aric Almirola is on his way out at Richard Petty Motorsports and could easily just mail it in since he’s already secure in a ride at Stewart-Haas Racing. Instead he battled all day at Phoenix and came home with a ninth-place finish. Almirola has done quite a bit with some second-tier equipment for years. 2018 is going to be an interesting year to watch to see if he can take that final step from nice driver to winner/title contender.
When the checkered flag flew:
Matt Kenseth was victorious at Phoenix Raceway for his 39th career triumph in his 650th start.
This was Kenseth’s first victory of 2017.
Kenseth has two career wins at Phoenix.
39 wins is good for a tie with Tim Flock for 19th on the All-Time wins list.
Chase Elliott finished second for the fifth time this season.
This was Elliott’s first career second place finish at Phoenix.
Elliott has seven second place runs in his career which ties him with Lennie Pond, G.C. Spencer and Michael Waltrip for 77th on the All-Time list.
Martin Truex Jr. scored his first career top three at Phoenix.
This was Truex’s 15th top three of 2017 and fourth in a row.
For his career Truex has 45 career podium finishes. That ties him for 53rd with Neil Bonnett.
Rookie of the Race was Erik Jones. This is the 15th win of the year for Jones. Daniel Suarez has won the award 15 times this season while Ty Dillon has snagged the honor four times. Gray Gaulding has been bestowed the award once.
The final four drivers for the title are set. Matt Kenseth, thanks to being eliminated from title contention at Kansas, was not able to advance to the Homestead finale in title contention. The end result is Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick have advanced to the finals based on wins at Martinsville and Texas. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski have advanced on points. It all comes down to those four at Homestead-Miami. The top finisher of that quartet takes home the big cup.
What is in the cooler (one to six beers where one is a stinker and six is an instant classic)
Everyone is talking about what a great race it was at Phoenix. It had some early passes for the lead and the late race drama was exciting. The middle of the race was quite boring but everyone is talking after the checkered flag instead of turning over to football so that is a positive. The end result is four cold Biltmore Blondes from Phoenix Ale Brewery.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The final Sunday of the year for the Cup series goes down at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The action can be seen on NBC starting at 2:30 p.m. ET. It can also be seen on the NBCSports App. To listen to the race tune to your local MRN affiliate, navigate to www.motorracingnetwork.com or tune to SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.