AVONDALE, Ariz. -- There was always going to be one delighted driver and four jealous ones when Sunday's playoff cutdown race finished, but now we know who falls into which category.
First, the singularly happy one: Brad Keselowski. The Team Penske driver came into Sunday's Can-Am 500 race at Phoenix International Speedway leading the remaining NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers in points, and that proved to be enough to get him through to Homestead even without a win. That went to Matt Kenseth, who won another race before he stops driving at the end of this season. Keselowski finished 16th, and while Chase Elliott finished second, Keselowski's points advantage proved enough.
Then there's the four less-enthused drivers, the ones who missed the cut Sunday and were eliminated from championship contention: Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Keselowski, and Elliott. Johnson's day ended early thanks to a blown tire just before the end of Stage 2. Hamlin also saw his day end early due to a blown tire, which was more unexpected since he led for the majority of the race.
So the championship four is finally set now -- Keselowski joins Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick -- and now we have to wait just one more week to have our next NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Stage 1: Kyle Larson hung around the front of the pack for most of the first stage, but he finally passed Hamlin with a couple to go to win Stage 1. Larson was eliminated from the playoffs when his engine blew at Kansas, but he can still play spoiler by stealing the stage points other drivers so desperately need.
Stage 2: Hamlin dominated the second stage and cruised to a stage win without any fuss. The 10 points he earns for that, plus the nine he received for coming second in Stage 1, closed the entire points gap that Keselowski had coming into the race.
Stage 3: Elliott had the lead with about 10 laps to go, but Kenseth passed him and was able to hold off the youngster for the win. Kenseth hasn't won in 51 races, so it's nice to see him get one more checkered flag before his career comes to an end after this season.
Three who mattered
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth hadn't won in 51 races, and his career won't continue after this season for lack of a ride, even though he has said he would like to. Still, this win is a nice send-off for the former champion.
Denny Hamlin: He dominated up front for most of the race until he crashed into the wall late after several bumps from Elliott. He led for 193 of 312 laps.
Chase Elliott: This is Elliott's seventh second-place finish without a win, and while he said after the race he hopes to eventually correct that closing issue, this loss will sting more than others with a championship berth on the line.
--Ryan Blaney started on the pole, but it didn't take long for him to fall back into the pack. By the end of the first stage, he had already fallen to 13th. He ultimately finished the race 17th.
--There were no unplanned cautions in Stage 1, or in the first 149 laps for that matter, until Jimmie Johnson's burst tire forced one just before the conclusion of Stage 2.
--Larson won Stage 1, but went to the garage about a third of the way through Stage 2 (lap 105) and did not finish the race. This is the fourth straight race he did not complete, two due to engine failure and two to wrecks, dating back to Kansas.
They said it
"I don't ever want to go through that again." -- Brad Keselowski on the way he snuck into the championship at Homestead.
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