AVONDALE, Ariz. — Highlights of Sunday’s Can-Am 500, the final race of the third round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, at Phoenix Raceway:
WINNER: Matt Kenseth, without a ride for next season, took the lead from Chase Elliott with 10 laps remaining and captured his first win of the year in what may be his last NASCAR season.
Elliott was on his way to winning his first career Cup race and the fourth slot in next weekend’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway before falling to Kenseth.
"I don't know what to say except thank the lord," an emotional Kenseth said after climbing out of his car. "It's been an amazing journey. Just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner. We won today. Nobody can take that away from us."
Kenseth's win gave Brad Keselowski the final spot in the championship race, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Kenseth, who earned his 39th career Cup victory Sunday, announced earlier this month that he has no prospects to race next season and would likely take the year off unless a ride opens up.
"The way this year was going, I wasn't expecting to win today, either. So this one is really special," said Kenseth, who won the 2003 Cup Series championship. Elliott needed to win the penultimate race of the season Sunday to have a chance to race for the title next weekend, but for the fifth time this season, he came up one place short.
"So close to having a shot next week, but I can't say enough for my team, and we fought really, really hard today and gave ourselves a chance," Elliott said. "I told our guys I will get it right someday and had so many opportunities, but at some point we just got to close."
Keselowski finished 16th and had enough of a points cushion to advance on points with Kenseth, a non-playoff driver, winning at Phoenix. "We had great speed at Martinsville, great execution at Texas and great luck today," Keselowski, the 2012 series champion said. "You'd like to have all three of them on the same day — that's how you win — but happy to get through. "Most of the day I thought there was no way this was going to happen. But a little help from above and that's what happened."
ELLIOTT VERSUS HAMLIN, PART 2: Elliott ended a fierce battle for third place with nemesis Denny Hamlin by pushing Hamlin into the outside wall 42 laps from the finish. Hamlin’s contact with the wall resulted in a tire rub. Four laps later, the tire blew, ending Hamlin’s day and his chance at the championship. Two races earlier, Hamlin crashed Elliott at Martinsville Speedway, ending Elliott’s shot at a win and a guaranteed spot in the Final Four.
"We had a fast car all day," Hamlin said. "We did essentially our job all day long. We put ourselves in good position. Things just didn't work out in the end.
"Each person has their own opinion (regarding Martinsville). It just proves that those who thought I was a bad guy that he would do the same thing. I got into him and he retaliated. And now I'm in the garage."
THE FIRES THIS TIME: Chris Buescher lost control of his Chevrolet on lap 251 and slid into the outside wall. Hot pieces of the braking system from his car flew into gaps in the track’s SAFER barrier, sparking small fires in two sections of the wall and causing a 5:03 red flag. NASCAR officials said they stopped the race primarily to allow for more green-flag laps over the closing portion of the race.
A PAIN FOR BAYNE: Trevor Bayne blew a right-front tire and slammed hard into the outside wall on lap 228, bringing out the caution. Hamlin led at that point, with Kenseth 2.5 seconds behind.
STAGE TWO: Hamlin won the race’s second stage one lap after Jimmie Johnson’s blown tire produced a caution flag. Following in the top 10 were Kenseth, Erik Jones, Truex, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Elliott and Clint Bowyer. Hamlin thus earned nine stage points, effectively tying him with Keselowski for potential advancement to the Homestead Final Four.
JOHNSON MUST WAIT: Johnson’s search for a record eighth Cup championship ended on lap 149 when his right rear tire blew, sending his car into the outside wall. Johnson parked for the day. He virtually needed a win Sunday to advance to the championship chase at Homestead next week. The incident brought out the first non-stage caution of the race.
LARSON EXITS: Kyle Larson left the race after 105 laps when the engine in his Chevrolet expired. It marked Larson’s fourth consecutive DNF. “It’s just unfortunate to have four DNFs in a row -- two from engines and then two from wrecks,” Larson said. “It’s a crappy way to end the season. I thought I had, by far, the best car here today, so I was really happy about that. … I just hate that we don’t really get a shot to race for the win.”
STAGE ONE: The race’s first stage went green for the entire 75 laps, and non-playoff contender Larson finished first. He was followed by Hamlin, Elliott, Kenseth, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jones, Truex, Ryan Newman and Johnson. Hamlin thus earned the most stage points – nine – among the five playoff contenders. He led 41 laps during the stage.