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?
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.