In its fourth year as the final elimination race in the NASCAR Playoffs, Phoenix finally delivered the drama.
Real drama, too. Not the usual pre-race talking points the sport feeds us each week about why a particular race will be exciting. Five drivers fighting for one spot was automatically intriguing. Forget points racing to protect your spot on the playoff grid, or needing 17 different ‘what if’ scenarios to play out before something were to get shuffled. Phoenix left a lot that’s worth digesting.
What had seemed inevitable did happen for Jimmie Johnson, although his elimination came with a side order of destroyed race car from a blown tire. Title eight will have to wait. Ryan Blaney looked like he was ready to pull off an upset win after grabbing the pole, but he was never a factor Sunday afternoon. Blaney, along with his Team Penske teammates, sunk like a rock early in the going and struggled all afternoon with his car’s balance.
Then there was the fun with Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski. Coming into the day, the 19-point advantage Keselowski had on Hamlin might as well have well been zero. Our new era of stage racing meant Keselowski’s gap could have been erased before the race was even halfway old. And that’s exactly what happened.
Hamlin earned 19 points in the first two stages, meaning counting points and watching the points situation evolve in real time the cars ran meant something. The yo-yo of where Hamlin and Keselowski ran on the track set up a frantic final stage.
Elliott, meanwhile, tried to shake things up by winning the race. The No. 24 car was certainly good enough to do so, and as Elliott began to challenge amongst the top contenders spotter Eddie D’Hondt exclaimed, “We’re here for the party, boys.”
Elliott also got his revenge on Hamlin for what happened at Martinsville, and in the process made sure the Joe Gibbs Racing driver didn’t get to Homestead. What goes around comes around, and Kenseth did the same to Elliott with a race-winning pass with 10 laps to go.
Hold on, there’s more. Keselowski (above) saw his name among the final four when Hamlin exited the race, only to slip back out when Elliott took the lead, and when Elliott finished second, Keselowski was back in. He also had to nurse his car to the finish as it began to overheat.
Drama, paybacks and excitement, oh my!
Phoenix was worth the price of admission for the sold out crowd. Popcorn-worthy before, during and after the checkered flag. Phoenix also set the stage for a perfect season finale this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Non-championship storylines will include the evolving rivalry between Elliott and Hamlin. Elliott is also still looking for his first career Cup Series win. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are running their final races.
As for your Championship 4, you couldn’t have a more diverse group.
Three are former champions: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. The similarities end there, though.
Busch is brash and confident. His raw talent and ability to dig deep when the pressure is on puts him among the best in the business. Speed will not be a problem, and neither will his win-or-nothing attitude.
Harvick is the experienced veteran. The no-holds-barred, hard-nosed racer can never be counted out, and hardly be held down. After winning at Texas to earn a championship spot, Harvick has been sharping his teeth for another fight.
Keselowski has never been in this final four situation. But his calm and methodical nature will be needed in a 400-mile winner-take-all race. At first glance, Keselowski might have the worst odds, yet he’s more than capable of capitalizing if things start getting wild.
And Martin Truex Jr., he’s the outlier. Perhaps the title favorite, Truex has never hoisted the biggest prize in the business. Yet, he’s been this year’s dominator and feel-good story. And as the king of the 1.5-mile tracks, it would not be surprising to see the No. 78 team claim the crown Sunday night in south Florida.
Phoenix was good, great even. Now Homestead will put the exclamation point on it.