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(Photo: Barry Cantrell NKP)

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2017 Can-Am 500

Who… gets my shout-out of the race?

With Matt Kenseth’s final NASCAR Cup Series start potentially coming next week, his win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway puts the exclamation point on an outstanding career. Kenseth’s late surge snatched victory from the hands of title contender Chase Elliott, a consolation prize after last year’s wreck in NASCAR overtime. The veteran’s first Phoenix victory since 2002 brought him to tears while recognizing the magnitude of the moment.

Kenseth’s 39th win at the Cup level ties him for 19th on the all-time wins list with NASCAR Hall of Famer Tim Flock. Two of those wins came in the Daytona 500, one in the Coca-Cola 600 and another in the Southern 500. Only nine other drivers in history can claim wins in all three of these historic races.

But Kenseth’s greatest attribute as a driver was his consistency. Phoenix was his 326th top-10 finish, behind only Jimmie Johnson when it comes to active drivers. In his 2003 championship season, he clinched the title with a race to go despite just a single win that year. Some pundits point to the way he won the title as the reason why NASCAR adopted the current playoff format.

Kenseth’s rivalries and great on-track battles with Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne have been a memorable part of NASCAR history. His apparent hatred of some of Hendrick’s henchmen through the years (Gordon comes to mind) along with Logano have sparked interest in the sport.

Thanks for the memories and enjoy possible retirement. With Sundays opening up, there’s time for heavy metal concerts, Green Bay Packer games and hard-earned time with the family.

Why… did Denny Hamlin not just let Chase Elliott go by?

This question was answered in part by Hamlin’s spotter Chris Lambert after the race. Lambert told Matt Weaver of Autoweek that was the plan but Elliott just wouldn’t cooperate.

“We tried to let the No. 24 go, for two laps, but he was set on staying behind us, set on accomplishing what he finally did,” Lambert said. “We moved up the track to give him the bottom and even slowed down to let him go, but he just slowed down with us, content to stay behind us.

“Only way to prevent what happened was to pit or maybe he’d have went on after the No. 2 got around us. Either way, we’re screwed if we do either of those.”

I only half buy that explanation. There were a couple of times Elliott got his nose under Hamlin. Why couldn’t the No. 11 car have slowed down on the straightaway and risked losing a few spots? He was clearly faster than Brad Keselowski, the one driver standing in the way of a Championship 4 bid.

Once again, while Elliott clearly showed intent, Hamlin got in his own head. A bad pit stop, one where lug nuts could have been left off a tire ate at him. Slowly, the car got shuffled back on restarts, and the team appeared torn on whether to pit. You could see through Hamlin’s words on the radio and the racing on track that those worries were eating at him.

From 2010 to now, we’ve seen this pattern from the driver too many times. So it was a weakened No. 11 car that fell back into the grasp of Elliott. Then, Hamlin allowed Elliott to finish off the revenge that had been plotted for weeks. It’s these mental demons that will keep Hamlin from winning the championship trophy he covets.

One other point here. If Elliott was hanging back, like Lambert said, what makes this incident any different from what Kenseth and Logano went through in 2015? Elliott may have gotten even, but the premeditation is a bit bothersome.

Is that how we’re going to settle the championship going forward? Hmm.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

Now is not the time to panic for Chase Elliott fans.

OK, so Elliott is about to finish his second Cup season without a win. All right, but he has finished second seemingly 28,773 times now. He just lost a close race that would have vaulted him to a spot in the Championship 4.

But it isn’t time to panic.

He is Bill Elliott’s son. Remember, the elder Elliott took forever to win his very first Cup Series race. His first start was on Feb. 29, 1976. Looking past the fact we just gave you a great Jeopardy answer (“This NASCAR champion started their first race on a leap day”), it took him seven years, eight months and 22 days to finally win that first race on Nov. 20, 1983.

For Elliott to beat his father’s time, he’d have to win a race before the 2023 Daytona 500. And it’s not like Elliott has been complete garbage this year at all. He’s been the best Hendrick driver by a country mile ever since Johnson won his third race of the season at Dover International Speedway in June.

What’s more notable than Elliott’s slow path to Victory Lane, however, has been the fan response. I’ll fully admit that I didn’t think he would connect well with NASCAR nation.  Elliott is quiet, like his father, in an age where social media rules the day.  Like other young drivers of his era, I thought Elliott would struggle to relate to the sport’s core fans.

But lo and behold, Elliott is the most popular driver in the entire sport who isn’t retiring at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He made Hamlin, a Virginia driver, public enemy number one at Martinsville Speedwau. He then got Earnhardt levels of cheers after knocking out Hamlin from the race and passing Kenseth for the lead this week.

There’s a lot worse a driver could do in their first two seasons on the circuit. That’s especially true at a time when their manufacturer just seems off the pace from others in the series.

Elliott will be the face of NASCAR for many years with the way he’s running and the fans he’s making. So don’t panic about this season, Elliott fans. Get excited for the next 20.

When… will Jimmie Johnson have another chance at a title?

After an ugly NASCAR playoffs, Johnson will not be racing for an eighth championship at Homestead. A blown tire just a couple of laps before the second stage break proved the final nail in his Round of 8 coffin. Now, the defending champion will have to wait until next season to try and make history.

“To blow a right-front like that is pretty disappointing,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know it was coming. Clearly just got the brakes too hot and popped that tire with like a lap to go or two laps to go before the stage was up. We weren’t leading, we were having a decent day, but we were going to need a great day today. I wish we were still out on track to still have a shot for it.”

Johnson was running 11th at the time of the incident. That’s wasn’t enough, as he would have needed a win to advance. Paired with Elliott’s failure to win, that will make 2017 the first season since 2003 a Chevrolet driver won’t even have a chance at a championship at Homestead.

More importantly, when will Johnson have his next opportunity? He becomes the oldest full-time driver in the series next year if Kenseth retires. Elliott is suddenly red hot in the world of Hendrick Motorsports. Did these NASCAR playoffs just show us a changing of the guard is at hand?

Where… was Kevin Harvick?

The best driver at Phoenix for years was invisible during Sunday’s race. Sure, pit strategy for fresh tires got Kevin Harvick slicing through the field late. But that only got him to fifth at a racetrack where his Stewart-Haas Racing team has been dominant in recent years. The No. 4 Ford didn’t even lead a lap.

That small drop in performance is important because this track is to Harvick what Dover is to Johnson. God forbid, even in a mediocre season, the team could count this place as its ace card in the playoffs. Just make it to the Round of 8, it thought, and Phoenix would assure it a spot in Homestead.

Luckily, the win at Texas last week keeps Harvick in the running for a title. But going forward, he’ll want to fix Phoenix. Keeping that an automatic for the No. 4 team would assure Championship 4 bids for seasons to come.

How… did the championship four do before the big race at Homestead?

Unlike Brad Keselowski, who kind of limped going into Homestead after finishing 16th at Phoenix, Martin Truex Jr. enjoyed a strong day, finishing the highest of any of the four contenders in third.

It’s Truex’s best career Phoenix finish, continuing a season-long trend. He didn’t lead any laps but did have an average running position of fifth during the race, tied with Elliott for second best and behind the race winner. The white-hot Truex will now enter Homestead having not finished outside of the top three since Dover (Talladega Superspeedway notwithstanding). In fact, outside of that plate race he’s earned a top-five result in every playoff event. Truex will be the absolute favorite entering the sunshine state on Sunday.

Kyle Busch bounced back from a terrible Texas race to finish seventh in a pretty good day for the No. 18 team. Like Truex, Busch never held the lead. But a solid top-10 effort should give Busch confidence going forward. He’ll be the most recent champion eligible to run for the title at Homestead.

Finally, there’s Harvick. The Texas victory makes him the most recent race winner racing for a title in the Cup Series. It’s been a below-average season for the No. 4 team, its first running a Ford. But the experience of this 2014 champion means you can’t count him out.

About Frontstretch Staff

Frontstretch Staff

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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16 comments

  1. Tell me you don’t remember hamlin and edwards ganging up on BK at Homestead? If that’s all he gets he’s lucky.

  2. Watched last 50 laps on NASCAR 120 this afternoon. Does Chase have talent? Yep. Did he run Denny extra hard? Yep. Did Denny deserve it? Yep. Denny’s interview on how Chase would also resort to punk moves to go foward? Nope. Jeff Burton’s voice sounding like nails on a chalkboard when he gets exited?

  3. I think Hamlin, spotter, crew chief, et al are not being truthful. Hamlin never slowed and never intended to. Hamlin could have avoided the wall by lifting. Elliott didn’t body slam Hamlin into the wall, Hamlin mostly drove himself into the wall. AND Elliott was no where in sight when Hamlin crashed himself out. All those who are saying Elliott wrecked Hamlin weren’t watching the race, apparently. Hamlin was running at speed after Elliott passed. FIVE laps later, Hamlin crashed when his tire blew. He could have pitted, but didn’t. That’s on Hamlin’s team, not Elliott. If Elliott had raced Hamilin like Hamlin did him at Martinsville, then Hamlin’s back tires would have been off the ground as he entered the corner. Fact is, there was hard racing, Elliott cut no slack, and Hamlin wrecked himself. Not the first time Hamlin’s done that.

  4. I am smelling a rat with the hype of Chase being already the most popular driver. I call BS. for what? This narrative is something obviously NASCAR and the media are going to push. THE MOST POPULAR DRIVER! NASCAR and the media is obsessed with it. They built it up for the Dale Jr. because of his father, he is retiring (THANK GOD!) and now NASCAR is hoping lightening will strike twice and are going full guns with the same MOST POPULAR DRIVER crap for the son of Bill Elliott! Can NASCAR be more desperate or stupid, yeah…but it is so obviously funny and pathetic.

    • I don’t buy it. I think there’s a lot of fans that like Chase Elliott, and Junior before him, because they were fans of his dad, and pulling for Chase is like hanging on to a little piece of the past. Nothing wrong or unusual about that. Plus, he’s obviously both talented and marketable. I realize that Nascar likes to manipulate and control what it can within the sport, but in this case I think the fans know who they like and who they pull for (Hint: And his name ain’t Busch). And this is coming from a Keselowski fan, so I ‘m not blinded by my own favoritism.

      • I think it’s a southern thing. NASCAR’s fan base is still rooted in the south. Elliott is the closest thing to a “good old boy” in the eyes of many of those fans (once Earnhardt leaves). Whether he is or isn’t a good old boy is irrelevant. Perception is all that matters and there aren’t too many drivers left that are from the south anyway.

        • I guess I’m an anomaly… I’m from SC, home of the revered David Pearson & Cale Yarborough, but once they called it a career, I became an Alan Kulwicki fan. Now I’m a Keselowski fan. Why a good old boy from the bible belt would pull for Polish drivers from the rust belt is a mystery even to me.

    • elliott the elder ruled the most popular contest for years. sr won when elliott pulled himself out. jr has won cause he’s the son of dale. sure there’s jr nation, but i don’t see those people going to elliott the son next yer. elliott the son will probably be most popular next year. remember during the allstar race, princess was “fan voted”, and logano was fan voted once cause home depot pushed their employees to vote for their new driver that year to make the all star race.

      let’s see, brad as most popular, nope, people don’t like him, logano, NEVER, and the basher brothers, well they won’t. hamlin, LOLOLOL.

      maybe bubba will give elliott the son a run for the title next year.

  5. I don’t buy that BS from Hamlin’s spotter. They were racing “no holds barred”. Chase got revenge by racing Hamlin as hard as he could and that forced Hamilin into the wall. That’s a bit different from piledriving someone going into the corner. Chase could have easily done that, but didn’t. Typical Denny chokejob at Phoenix. Payback is sweet!

  6. First off, Hamlin’s crew chief is full of shit. Henny had several opportunities to let Chase by. BTW, what’s the international sign when as driver wants to let another driver by?…. a hand out the window. Did anyone see that gesture from Henny. Nope, I don’t buy it. He was caught up in the Chase mentality that he must win the race and to hell with everyone else, even though he didn’t have to win the race at that point (just needed to finish ahead of the 2). As is always the case, Henny beat himself.

    And yes it does seem like the championship is now set up to not result in the most deserving driver winning the championship but the last man standing after all the shit settles. Crapshoot racing at it’s most ridiculous.

    As for Harvick, maybe he didn’t do better because he didn’t have to.

    Jimmie was lucky to win last year. He won by default after the 3 cars that ran the best all wrecked each other. He is no longer the guy that everyone is measuring their success against. We’ll just have to see if he can buck the historical trend of drivers’ success dropping off significantly once they hit 40. So far, despite backing into a championship last year, it looks like his stats have started to drop already.

  7. What’s interesting is that these playoff guys can go from a butt-ugly performance one week to a great finish at the next race. Keselowski may have limped through Phoenix, and Harvick may have suffered a very un-Harvick-like Phoenix race, but I’ll bet you those guys bring their A-game to Homestead. Truex may be the heavy favorite next weekend, but the other three all know how to win a championship. That’s why they crank ’em up and run 500 miles at Homestead.

  8. “Is that how we’re going to settle the championship going forward?”

    That is EXACTLY what Emperor Brian wants for his product at Homestead every year. A Hamlin-Elliott finish like Martinsville on the last lap in the last corner. I’ll bet he wouldn’t even be at the track unless there was a bar at the track.

    • I don’t think so. It may play well with a certain segment of those who follow nascar. However it is a loser if they are still trying to grow the sport. No reason for anybody to watch a demolition derby when there is other cool stuff on.

      • Brian wants them. He’s said he wants them. Why do you think there are double file restarts? GWCs? Late race cautions? He wants demo derby finishes. What are shown during ads for Brian’s product? Crashes, more crashes and rollovers. Brian wants game 7 moments at the end of each event. He’ll never realize he can’t get them.

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