AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth doesn’t get to end his career the way he hoped. He thinks he’s got a handful of good years left in him, and can win races and compete for championships.
But the economics of the sport have made Kenseth a casualty of NASCAR’s new youth movement. He doesn’t have a job for next year.
So he’s going away. But he’s not going quietly.
Kenseth won for the first time this season, snapping a 51-race winless streak, to earn one final victory celebration.
“Just got one race left and everybody dreams of going out a winner,” a tearful Kenseth said after climbing from his Toyota. “It’s just been quite a journey, and today was a really special day for me, to know that next week is almost for sure my last week behind the wheel.”
Kenseth passed Chase Elliott with 10 laps remaining to win Sunday at Phoenix International 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 in his career.
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.”
Kenseth said he’s finally found peace with his future.
“I probably knew around August that it really wasn’t meant for me to be racing anymore at this level, you know, going forward,” Kenseth said. “I probably fought it for too long and kind of looked at different opportunities and thought about doing something different, but then just really embraced it.
“Not many people get to go out in really good cars and win races and have a chance to win a championship. It’s really a blessing to be able to go to work every day and work as hard as you can on it, put everything into it that you’ve got and finally get one here.”
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 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.
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 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.