AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth may be going away, but he’s not going quietly.
Kenseth won for the first time this season in what might have been the second-to-last Cup race of his NASCAR career. Kenseth does not have a job lined up for next year and said he’ll take a break at the start of the season.
“Just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner,” a tearful Kenseth said after climbing from his Toyota.
Kenseth passed Chase Elliott with 10 laps remaining to win Sunday at Phoenix Raceway and deny Elliott the final berth in next week’s championship race. Had Elliott hung on for the win, he would have qualified for the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Elliott finished second for the seventh time this season.
Brad Keselowski earned the final spot in the championship on points because a playoff-eligible driver did not win the race. Keselowski will race Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick for the championship next Sunday at Homestead. The field, two Toyota drivers and two Ford drivers, includes three former series champions and Truex, the most dominant driver of the season.
Kenseth had already been eliminated from the playoffs, so his victory was purely personal satisfaction.
It also salvaged the day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which had a chance to get Denny Hamlin into the championship until his feud with Elliott cost him the chance.
The two were racing for position and Elliott gave Hamlin several taps as he tried to get past him for position, and when he finally was able to pull alongside Hamlin, the two cars made contact. Hamlin grazed the wall and immediately began losing positions on the track.
Just a few laps later, his tire blew, Hamlin hit the wall and his race was over. Elliott admitted he raced Hamlin aggressively, same as Hamlin did when he wrecked Elliott from the lead at Martinsville.
“It just proves to the people who thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing under the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “I got into him and he chose to retaliate.”
Jimmie Johnson also wrecked early in the race, ending his bid to make the championship. The elimination of the seven-time champion means NASCAR will not have a repeat winner.
Kyle Larson won the first stage of the race, and then his recent run of bad luck continued. His engine failed early in the second stage and Larson went to the garage with a last-place finish.
It’s the fourth straight race Larson has failed to finish dating to Kansas when an engine failure knocked him out of the playoffs. Larson was considered a strong contender to win the title.
“It’s a crappy way to end the season,” Larson said. “I haven’t blown up an engine since my first two Cup starts in 2013, now I’ve had three this season. It’s a little disappointing and definitely a bad time of year to have that stuff happen.”
The Chip Ganassi Racing team gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports.
Trevor Bayne had a tire go down in the third stage of the race that caused his car to veer directly into the wall.
“That hurt so bad,” Bayne said on his team radio.
He was able to climb from his car and walk to a waiting ambulance for a mandatory check in the care center.
The race was briefly red-flagged with 58 laps remaining when an accident involving Chris Buescher caused two different fires.
The brake rotor on Buescher’s car exploded and pieces landed inside the energy-absorbing SAFER barrier. The hot parts caused the Styrofoam to catch fire in two different parts of the wall. NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell tweeted during the five-minute stoppage that the red flag was used to “avoid too many lost laps” during the cleanup.
The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. The highest finishing driver of the four contenders will win the championship.
Eau Claire native Paul Menard finished in 15th place.