Matt Kenseth scores emotional win in drama filled Playoff race at Phoenix

AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 12: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Circle K Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 12, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

In 1998 Matt Kenseth made his NASCAR Cup debut filling in for Bill Elliott at Dover International Speedway.  Sunday, Kenseth passed Elliott’s son, Chase, to score would could possibly be his final win as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver.

Kenseth took the lead from Chase Elliott with seven laps to go and won the Can Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway. It was the first win for Kenseth in 51 races dating back to New Hampshire in July of 2016, and the 39th of his career.  The win comes as Kenseth has one more race with Joe Gibbs Racing, who announced that he will be replaced with rookie Eric Jones starting in 2018, a year that Kenseth said last week he may have to sit out not having any prospects for a full-time ride.

“It’s really not describable,” Kenseth said. “With only two left, I didn’t think we were probably had a good chance of getting back to victory lane. It’s been I don’t know how many races – somebody’s probably going to tell me tonight – but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time. We’ve had a lot of close ones. Just felt like it was never meant to be and today it was meant to be.”

The win denied Elliott a shot at making the Final 4 at Homestead.  It was his seventh second place finish of 2017.

“I felt like I gave my 110 percent today,” Elliott said. “Although very disappointed, again, to be so dang close to winning and having a chance to race for a championship.  Learning the hard way, I guess, in some ways, but it’s hopefully making me a better person and making us better down the road.”

That Final 4 wasn’t a sure thing until the checkered flag fell.  Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were locked in when the day started leaving five drivers for one spot. Brad Keselowski was in on points, but started 16th and struggled much of day.

Jimmie Johnson saw his hopes for an eighth title shot end when he blew a tire and hit the wall on lap 164. He finished 39th.  That was one spot ahead of Kyle Larson who led 12 laps and was in contention until another engine issue sent him to the garage on lap 104.

“The last couple of months we’ve been staying alive and at this stage with the Round of 8 and then the Round of 4, you can’t just stay alive,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders and we just haven’t been there, unfortunately… we just can’t get there right now. We’ll try again next weekend and then do some good changes over the off-season and come back next year and be ready to go.”

Denny Hamlin was the class of the field for much of the race and led a race high 193 laps. He was in on points over Keselowski in the waning laps.  Hamlin won the two Stages and it looked as though he would win the race and make the Final 4.

Elliott would have none of it.

Kenseth took the lead on a restart on lap 263; Elliott and Hamlin were fighting for third.  With memories of Martinsville two weeks prior when Hamlin booted Elliott out of the lead still fresh, Elliott pinched Hamlin up into the wall on lap 270. Hamlin’s Toyota was soon showing smoke from a tire rub, and on lap 272 the right front tire let go sending Hamlin into the wall and out of championship contention. He finished the day in the garage 35th.
“I mean, each person had their own opinion of how they do things,” Hamlin said. “It just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances, so, I mean, you know, it’s just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is. We did a great job all day. This is the best car I’ve had in a very long time. We just got behind on the pit stops and then that just gave those guys an opportunity to get close.”

Elliott would take the lead shortly after the restart on lap 283. Kenseth would catch him however and took the lead with a move on the dog leg exiting turn 2.

Keselowski would finish where he started, 16th, and take the last spot in the Final 4 at Homestead.

“I’m a big subscriber that it takes speed, execution and luck to win,” Keselowski said. “I think we probably had some really solid execution last week in Texas, great speed at Martinsville and luck today.  You know, if you put all three of them together on any given day, you can win, and we haven’t done that in this round, but we had one of each in all three races, and that put us in position to be here.”

The other three drivers he will face finished inside the top seven.  Truex Jr. finished third, Erik Jones fourth, and Harvick fifth.  Jamie McMurray was sixth, Kyle Busch seventh, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. eighth, Aric Almirola was ninth.

In his final race as a fulltime NASCAR Cup driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied from a flat tire and two laps down to finish 10th.

The final race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season will be the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday. The green flag will fall just after 2:30 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBC.

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