Phoenix turns out to be aptly named as Matt Kenseth rose from the ashes of his 2017 campaign with a very popular win. Considering all he has been through this season, Kenseth was rightly emotional after he took the checkered flag. The past champion was true to form as he thanked JGR and his sponsors and wished his wife and kids were with him.
The driver that no one wants to give a ride for 2018 showed everyone that he still feels like he has something left to give. Earlier in the week, Kenseth said he thinks it is time to take a break from Cup racing. While he hasn’t used the retirement word, drivers rarely do, it is obvious to him that perhaps his time has come. He preferred to do it on his own terms and not on the way it turned out but you can’t always write the perfect script. Winning at Phoenix will take some of the sting out of it, but the probably HOF driver showed a lot of class this season and can rest assured that no matter what, he went out on top with grace and style.
Sadly, Kenseth’s won came with a huge cost for Chase Elliott. Elliott had a fast car and was determined to get to the front of the pack. Elliott started fourth and stayed with the leaders all day. Denny Hamlin started on the outside pole and led 192 laps on his way to a near certain win and championship berth.
I did say near certain, right?
With the laps winding down and after a rash of restarts for wrecks, Hamlin wasn’t as good as he was earlier in the race. Elliott kept pace as Truex, Hamlin, Keselowski and leader Kenseth fought for position. Elliott decided that now was the time and started using his bumper to get by drivers who were obviously a bit slower. One by one he picked them off, including Denny Hamlin. With Martinsville clearly in their minds, fans were on their feet as Elliott closed on Hamlin, paced him, then nudged him out of the way and ran him up the track. Hamlin turned back into Elliott and got some tail wiggle as he brushed the wall. Elliott drove away after Kenseth and left Hamlin with a smoking tire. Hamlin had a choice to come in and fix his tire rub or stay on track and hope they caught a caution. The team chose to stay on track and the tire eventually gave out sending Denny into the wall and ending his day.
Denny had to know this was coming after he wrecked Elliott at Martinsville. Only in this case, Elliott moved Hamlin and ran him up the track. Hamlin defended and was as much the reason for contact as Elliott. At Martinsville, Hamlin simply put Chase into the wall, he had no opportunity to gather his car up and continue.
After catching Kenseth, Elliott passed him with another nudge and drove away. But his tires were older than anyone else’s and Kenseth came back. Kenseth caught Elliott again and cleared him for the final laps.
With Truex, Kyle Busch and Harvick all clinched, all Keselowski had to do was finish the race to clinch. He had got caught up in some trouble on the final restart and nearly hit the wall but managed to bring it home in 16th and keep Chase Elliott on the sidelines. It would have been fun to see Elliott or Ryan Blaney running for the title as Keselowski has not been as fast as either of them over the last several races. Blaney started on the pole and faded to a 17th place finish. He and Chase both needed a win to move on to Homestead.
Kyle Larson started the day in good form, leading 12 laps from his 3rd starting position but another engine failure relegated him to another DNF. Jimmie Johnson also had a shot at running for his 8th title but he found the wall again and that ended that. And Dale Earnhardt, Jr quietly finished with a top 10.
Now onto Miami-Homestead where champions are crowned. This year we have three former champs and Martin Truex, Jr. who has dominated on the 1.5-mile tracks this year. He will really need that golden horseshoe since he will be competing with the best of the best in Kevin Harvick who is the highest rated driver at Miami.
Miami-Homestead is also known for producing race winners that are not the champion. While the past three years have seen the race winner crowned as champion, only Tony Stewart in 2011 has been the race winner and champion. That’s 4 for 18, only a 22% chance the race winner is the Cup champion. With the class we have this year though, it is quite possible we’ll see the race winner crowned champion for the 5th time.
On paper, this looks like a battle between Harvick and the Toyota’s of Truex and Kyle Busch. Harvick and Kyle Busch have each won at Homestead but Truex has been outstanding on the 1.5-mile tracks. Keselowski has just not had a dominant car and has only three top 10 finishes at Homestead. Each team will need to bring it’s best. While you’d like to see them battle it out on the track, even a minor mistake on pit road could be the difference between winning and losing. And with a field of 40 cars, bad racing luck could also play a hand in the outcome.
I will put my faith in Martin Truex, Jr who has shown dominance this season and pulled out a win when he has needed it most. What say you?