In likely his final NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway, Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, smoothly slid past Chase Elliott with less than 10 laps remaining in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, spoiling Elliott’s potential Cinderella ticket to the Championship 4 playoff finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For the former Cup Champion Kenseth, the victory was a stellar way to put a ribbon on his Hall of Fame racing career, as he busted a 51-race winless drought. Kenseth certainly soaked in the Victory Lane celebration, with both smiles and tears of joy.
“It couldn’t be any sweeter,” shared Kenseth, who confirmed what everyone saw coming, namely that he would be stepping away from racing in 2018, primarily due to shortage of sponsorship to fund a championship caliber ride. Kenseth continued, “We got one race left and (this is) a great way to go out. I’ve been so incredibly blessed my whole career to have had so many great people work with me.”
The Can-Am 500 semifinal race showcased the best of NASCAR, with classy tributes and fresh, robust racing in full effect:
The rising talent among the sport’s future stars indeed shines bright, with both Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney running in the top 10 most of the day, and each just coming up short of punching their Championship ticket to Homestead.
Both these young guns carried themselves with the noble pedigree of their racing families, appealing to legions of new fans following their every move both on track and in the garage at Phoenix. Blaney flashed his raw talent by qualifying on the pole, and Elliott whipped fans into a frenzy with an eruption of cheers rivaling those typically reserved for Dale Earnhardt Jr, as he ripped the lead from Denny Hamlin with a flurry of bold racing moves in the late stages of the race.
Most impressively, both Elliott and Blaney made classy trips to victory lane to congratulate Kenseth on his win and commend him for his driving prowess. Kenseth responded to their overtures by saying, “It was pretty neat to have a lot of your peers come and congratulate you, and even at the end to be able to drive by all the fans and … actually hear them yelling over the car and hear them in the window,” Kenseth declared. “I mean, it was just a really, really special day for a lot of reasons.”
Fighting an ill-handling car and mired in traffic, Brad Keselowski clawed his way to a 16th-place finish in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, securing the last spot to join Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch to run for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Keselowski grasped that he had dodged the elimination bullet, and grimaced after the race knowing the formidable challengers that await him at next Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” shared Keselowski. “I’m glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure. I am just looking forward to going to Homestead. This feels a little bit like Christmas.”
Overshadowed by the playoff drama were several stout finishes by drivers eliminated in earlier playoff rounds, including Chip Ganassi Racing’s Jamie McMurray, who finished 6th, right behind last week’s winner and reigning Phoenix master Kevin Harvick, as well as Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr who finished 8th. With dominant storylines linked to playoff advancement, these purged drivers often fall below the radar in terms of media coverage.
Having transformed into the jewel of the desert, Phoenix Raceway has emerged as the must-see stopover with yet another sold-out crowd. For fans, this racing experience will escalate in 2018, as the track is progressing rapidly forward on its nearly $180 million renovation project with many changes already on display. Beginning January 2018, Phoenix Raceway will be known as ISM Raceway, thanks to a multi-year partnership with ISM Connect, a pioneer in smart venue technology.
A circuit reconfiguration will result in the current backstretch becoming the frontstretch, with the start-finish line moving just beyond the renowned “dogleg” segment, ideally creating a rousing racing curve. New suites, midway, grandstands, and a reimagined infield will offer fans unprecedented access, including direct viewing of garage activity and the drivers’ pre-race meeting, combined with the first motorsports venue to have Wi-Fi throughout the facility. If you’re considering coming to Zoomtown USA, buy your tickets early or be disappointed.
By Ron Bottano
Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano.