Who’s hot in NASCAR this week? How about NASCAR itself. As the final laps wound down in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix late Sunday afternoon, the drama heated up. There were all kinds of scenarios in play to determine just which driver would be the last to race for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend.
Would Chase Elliott bump Denny Hamlin to try and get his first win, claiming a spot in Homestead? (Yes… and no.) Would Brad Keselowski, all of a sudden, like Matt Kenseth a whole lot better? (If he doesn’t, he should now.) Would Jimmie Johnson make a gallant run to win and have a chance at a record-setting eighth crown? (No and no.) Was this race just what NASCAR ordered when coming up with this playoff system?
That last one is a resounding yes.
There were five drivers battling for a Championship 4 spot at Phoenix and plenty of potential winners. Few people thought Matt Kenseth, eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 12, would play a role. Kenseth’s big story leading up to Sunday was simply that he was stepping away from the sport after 2017.
But Kenseth, in perhaps his penultimate race in the series, stepped up to the plate. It was quite a scene in Victory Lane as the normally even-keeled Kenseth showed some real emotion. The 45-year-old knew this race could very well be his final MENCS victory.
It was the 39th career win for the the 2003 Cup champion, and who knows? He might just end his career with 40 if the No. 20 team can pull off the upset again at Homestead. But the real upset here is that Kenseth, even though he is age 45, has proven he can still win. He won’t have a Cup Series ride for next year and that’s a travesty. It’s just a sign of the finance vs. talent issues taking place in NASCAR today.
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have risen to the occasion, time and time again, in a storied partnership that has won them seven Cup titles. But the only thing rising during Sunday’s race were their tempers. Knaus and Johnson seemed equally frustrated about having a car incapable of the win they needed for Homestead. Johnson even had to resort to running the high line around the Phoenix track, a move that for most of his career has been a foreign strategy. When Johnson has been at his best, he rides the white line around the inside, especially at these one-mile and shorter tracks.
Now, Johnson will experience another rarity for him. The No. 48 will ride around Homestead without any chance at earning a championship.
When Denny Hamlin saw Chase Elliott in his mirror, he knew what was going to happen. When Elliott pulled up to Hamlin’s bumper a few times, he knew what he was going to do. And so it was that Elliott extracted revenge in trying to go for the win and a title berth at Homestead.
It looked like for several laps Elliott’s title hopes could materialize in the wake of Hamlin’s wreck. But a clean Kenseth pass broke the Cinderella slipper for this 21-year-old just before midnight.
Nonetheless, it was an important race for Elliott. He sent a message that, while being one of NASCAR’s nice guys, he will get his revenge at the proper place and time, if needed. So, yes, Elliott may still be in search of that first win. But what he did Sunday may have boosted the probability of that breakthrough happening sooner rather than later.
There has been some talk on social media about Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. not deserving a full-time Cup ride next season. Really, that’s all just nonsense. Wallace, along with Kenseth, and if you wanted to say Greg Biffle, if he wished, are all deserving of full-time rides.
But even with Kenseth’s win, you can see why, at age 45, he would be left out in the cold. Wallace has won six times in the Truck Series and run two and a half seasons in the XFINITY Series. And when he replaced the injured Aric Almirola for four Cup races earlier this year, he improved each week, capping it off with an 11th-place finish at Kentucky.
I was at that race and one of my thoughts afterwards was that whatever happens with Wallace, he deserves a full-time ride somewhere next year. And if a driver can finish well on the 1.5-mile tracks (the kind I disdain), you’ve got to give him or her a serious look because there are so many on them on the circuit.
In the end, Wallace got what he deserved… a full-time ride in a Cup car.
If there was a hang-in-there award for the Round of 8, it definitely belongs to Brad Keselowski. Keselowski will now have a chance to run for his second title on Sunday after a race of survival at Phoenix. Keselowski’s car wasn’t particularly good for most of the day, but he did manage to hang around just outside the top 10. The car was at its best during the closing laps even though chaos on a late-race restart left them racing conservative to make Homestead.
Keselowski and Paul Wolfe may have the best driver-crew chief relationship going right now. Instead of getting frustrated with their situation, they worked together to manage the car the best they could. And then Keselowski, even seeing his engine temperatures rising during the final 10 laps, nursed the car home in 16th. They made all the right moves and that’s why this duo remains in title contention despite an up-and-down year.
It’s for all the marbles this week at Homestead. Really, it’s hard to imagine someone not named Martin Truex, Jr. winning it all. He’s been the best and most consistent car this year, and now, there’s an emotional edge. Furniture Row Racing will want to win for owner Barney Visser, who suffered a heart attack last week. Visser had open heart surgery (and is reportedly recovering well), but he won’t be at Homestead to root on the team.
It’s just impossible to not pick Truex here. As for the underdog who you might not think about pick, I’m going with Kyle Larson. Larson, coming off four straight DNFs, could very well win the race, even though he’s not in the title hunt.