Matt Kenseth notches first NASCAR win since 2016; Brad Keselowski advances to Cup championship
By Rick Minter
As the laps wound down in Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway, the Monster Energy Cup playoff drama took a back seat to a heartwarming charge to victory by the soon-to-be-retired Matt Kenseth.
The 45-year-old veteran announced recently that he had no real driving opportunities after a career that has seen him win a Cup championship in 2003 and 39 Cup races, including Sunday’s triumph.
He entered the weekend already eliminated from the playoffs and riding a winless streak that stretched back to July of 2016, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. And he was down to two chances to end his career with a victory.
But he and his No. 20 team at Joe Gibbs Racing unloaded a fast car at Phoenix. He qualified seventh and took the lead for the first time on Lap 232 of 312. Playoff contender Chase Elliott, needing a win to advance to the championship round this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, surged ahead of Kenseth just after a restart and led for 19 laps before Kenseth retook the top spot and led the final 10 laps. Elliott, who finished second ahead of Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick, was among a host of drivers congratulating Kenseth after the race.
The winner was in tears as he was interviewed on TV.
“I don’t know what to say except, ‘Thank the Lord,’” Kenseth said. “It’s been an amazing journey, and I know I’m a big baby right now. Just have one race left, and everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. …
“What a storybook ending. I wasn’t sure that I was ready for this and to move onto something next year, but honestly, God made the decision for me — he put me here for a reason and he’s taking me out for a reason.
“It’s been an incredible journey and there’s no way you could write it any better than this.”
For Elliott, who finished second for the seventh time in his Cup career, there was little to celebrate. He didn’t get the win he needed to make the championship round at Homestead, and he was involved in another incident with Denny Hamlin, who crashed him out of the lead at Martinsville two weeks prior to Phoenix.
Elliott was attempting to pass Hamlin late in the Phoenix race, and after an exchange of bumps, Elliott nudged Hamlin, who had led 193 laps, hard enough to send him into the outside wall and eventually out of the race.
“I raced [Hamlin] how he raced me, and that’s the way I saw it,” Elliott said. “That’s about all I have to say.”
Hamlin said it was payback on Elliott’s part. “I got into [Elliott], and he chose to retaliate,” Hamlin said. “So I’m in the garage, and that’s the way it is.”
With Hamlin no longer a factor in the championship, Brad Keselowski, who entered the race with a 19-point edge over Hamlin for the fourth playoff spot, cruised to a 16th-place finish and a berth in the title round at Homestead.
Two other drivers in the Round of 8 also failed to advance. Ryan Blaney started on the pole but faded to 17th place, and Jimmie Johnson crashed early and finished 39th.
Three championship round berths had already been filled prior to Phoenix, as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick won spots via wins at Martinsville and Texas, respectively, and points leader Martin Truex Jr. had earned a spot with his comfortable points advantage.