There is one seat left at the table. One more chance at Phoenix to claim the prize. Five drivers want the golden ticket that allows them to race for the championship. Martin Truex Jr.(78), Kyle Busch(18), and Kevin Harvick(4) are already locked in. Brad Keselowski(2) currently holds the position that would advance him on points. Denny Hamlin(11) and Ryan Blaney(21) could work their way in on points if things fall just their way. Chace Elliott(24) and Jimmie Johnson(48) must win to advance.
Today at Phoenix International Raceway that golden ticket will go to one of the five contestants. At the end of the CanAm 500, we will know the name of the fourth driver to compete for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Blaney takes the green flag today on the pole. Advantage Blaney. Keselowski starts 16th if he cannot improve on his starting position the 19 point lead he holds over fifth place Hamlin could be in danger.
Of course, Stage points are going to jumble the standings twice during the race today. Stage lengths are 75 laps for the first two segments. That leaves 162 laps for the final stage to complete the 312 laps scheduled at the one-mile speedway in the desert outside of Phoenix. Halfway through Stage One, Blaney dropped out of the top ten and Keselowski lost two positions running in 18th. Hamlin moved to the lead followed by Kyle Larson(42) and Elliott.
Hamlin lost the lead to Larson with eight laps to go costing Hamlin one point at the end of Stage One. However, Keselowski’s 18th place finish combined with Hamlin’s nine bonus points would be enough to place Hamlin in the playoffs if the race ended at that point. Only 21 cars remained on the lead lap after 75 green flag laps.
Stage One Results
|Position||Car Number||Driver||Points Earned|
NP=Non Playoff Competitor
Pit stops allowed crews to make adjustments to race cars hoping to improve performance for Stage Two. Hamlin exited the pits with the lead and Matt Kenseth(20) holding the second spot. Larson’s run of bad luck continued, 30 laps into the second Stage Larson brought his car to pit road. The crew sent him to the garage with the engine set to expire. Larson, a Round One playoff contender, is ending the year that showed so much promise with three consecutive DNF’s.
With 20 laps to go in Stage Two, Hamlin led every lap since the restart. Keselowski moved up to 13th but was slowing watching his 19 point advantage disappear. With one lap to go in Stage Two, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson blew a right front tire and hit the outside wall hard. The resulting damage sent the 48 car to the garage and eliminated the team from playoff contention.
Hamlin’s stage win combined with Keselowski’s inability to score a stage point puts the two drivers dead even at the beginning of the final stage. Barring a miracle comeback and win by Blaney or Elliott, the final playoff spot will go to whoever finished the race in the higher position Hamlin or Keselowski.
Stage Two Results
|Position||Car Number||Driver||Points Earned|
NP=Non Playoff Competitor
The Final Stage
Again Hamlin returned to the lead on the restart with Keselowski running back in 11th. Blaney and Elliott both running in the top ten but neither has shown the ability to run up front since early in the race. Without Hamlin encountering trouble the battle for the final spot could be over.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.(88) cut a right front tire on lap 227 and almost suffered the same fate as his teammate Johnson. Two laps later Trevor Bayne(6) cut a right front tire and impacted the wall hard out of turn four. Bringing out the caution just before driver’s started making green flag pit stops.
Pit stops with 82 laps to go meant drivers would have a long run to the finish. Possibly opening the door for more tire troubles before the checkered flag. Kenseth beat Hamlin off pit road taking over the lead. As the green flag flew for the restart Kenseth easily jumped in front.
Team communications between Hamlin and his crew chief indicated there may have been a problem with the pit stop. The jackman dropped the car before the tire changer finished on the left rear. He reported it was questionable as to whether all five lugs were tight. Pitting would mean allowing Keselowski to erase the deficit between him and Hamlin. Not pitting could mean a loose wheel and dangerous racing conditions.
Hamlin decided to stay out and see what developed. Chris Buescher(37) crashed with 61 laps to go bringing out the caution again. A piece of debris kicked over the wall and dropped between the concrete and the safer barrier. The Styrofoam which provides the cushioning for the safer barrier is supposed to be fireproof. However, what looked to be a red-hot brake rotor exploding on the Buescher car ignited the fire and brought out the red flag stopping the field with 58 laps to go.
Late Pit Stops
Pit stops following the Buescher wreck scrambled the field. Kenseth maintained the lead on the restart. But, Chase Elliott suddenly entered the battle for the lead. Elliott moved from fourth to second, passing Hamlin two laps after the green. Another wreck, Cole Whitt(72), brought out the caution with 51 laps to go. Starting beside the leader Kenseth, Elliott got a bad restart and fell behind Truex Jr. and Hamlin.
Given the history between Hamlin and Elliott at Martinsville the drama was intense. Elliott tapped Hamlin’s bumper several times before cutting to the inside and pulling alongside. The two bumped side-by-side and Elliott drove Hamlin to the top of the track. They bumped again and Hamlin tapped the wall. Fender damage developed a tire rub and suddenly Hamlin’s championship was in danger.
Win and You’re In
Two laps later Hamlin wrecked and another contender went to the garage. Now Keselowski inherited the points lead that would allow him to advance. Elliott however, would restart in third with 31 laps to go. A win would send Elliott to the championship. Two laps later he passed Truex Jr. for second and with 28 laps to go, he passed Kenseth for the lead.
After building a one second lead on Kenseth, the veteran drove to the bumper of Elliott with 12 laps to go. With 10 to go Kenseth took the lead. With five to go Kenseth built a .8 second lead on Elliott.
Kenseth, the man with no ride set for next season, held onto the top spot. By taking the win Kenseth denied Elliott a chance to advance to the finals. Elliott remained winless while racking up another second place finish on his resume. Kenseth clearly moved by the victory teared up during the television interview at the start-finish line.
Brad Keselowski who started the day in the fourth and final playoff spot held onto the position to become the last driver to qualify for the final. Next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway he will race for his second NASCAR Cup Championship. Two Fords and Two Toyotas will battle it out for the 2017 title.
NASCAR got exactly what the wanted from the changes to the points system and stage racing. Incredible drama right up to the final lap at Phoenix kept fans on the edge of their seat. Next week’s race promises to deliver similar thrills and The Lasco Press will cover the final live from Homestead. Follow all week as we report on the championship races from all three of NASCAR’s premier divisions.
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