Matt Kenseth wins in Phoenix; Keselowski earns berth into NASCAR's Final Four
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) —
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. The 2003 NASCAR champion is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and consistent playoff driver, but he's 45 and being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing next season by Erik Jones.
Too expensive to land a competitive ride for next season, Kenseth has decided to take time away rather than drive a car that can't win races.
"He's been really down and frustrated and trying to figure out this season and what it's all about, to try to go out there and try to win in his final season, not on his own terms final season," said teammate Busch, one of many drivers to congratulate Kenseth.
"I think it shows that there's no reason why he couldn't have gotten a job anywhere else. It's just, I guess, the industry didn't see Matt Kenseth as their driver, and that's really, really unfortunate because I love the guy and have raced with respect for him for a long, long time and will forever respect him for what he's done for the sport."
The Kenseth win salvaged the day for Gibbs, 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.
"A wise man once told me that he'll race guys how they race him with a smile on his face, so that's what I did today," Elliott said. "I raced him how he raced me, and that's the way I saw it. That's about all I have to say."
Hamlin was racing to win, but could have beaten Keselowski into the finale on points had he not wrecked. He has maintained that he didn't mean to wreck Elliott at Martinsville, and the payback Sunday was redemption.
"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.