By Andrew Kim
A late turn of misfortunes and shuffles in the points standings turned into good fortunes for Joey Logano after Logano fended off a late charge from Kyle Busch and the field to win the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway for his third victory of the season, his 17th Sprint Cup career victory and an automatic berth at the Championship 4 round, where he will be one of four competitors battling for this year’s championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway next Sunday. Logano, who started in the fourth position, led 58 of today’s 324-lap event en route to the breakthrough victory that was also his first at Phoenix. “This feels so good,” said a jubilant Logano. “I’ve never felt this good about a win before. There was so much on the line and everyone brings their A-game when it comes to winning championships and this team did it. Man, this feels so good. We’ve got to go to Homestead and do the same thing. I couldn’t be more proud of this team. Roush Yates Engines bringing the heat again … I’m speechless right now. I feel like I just won the Daytona 500 again.”
Logano’s victory made the main headlines. The major headline of which competitor would secure the final transfer position heading into the finale at Homestead that took a turn of event in the closing stages of the event. With two laps remaining, former Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth was leading drivers Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch and Logano and was approaching the start/finish line zone to secure the white flag lap, which would have officially concluded the event, when the caution came out before he made it back to the line when Michael McDowell blew out a right-rear tire and spun in turns 2 and 3. The late caution set the field to overtime restart mode for as many restart attempts as possible unless the field would reach the overtime zone before the caution came out. Kenseth led the field to the first overtime attempt on lap 317 with Bowman beside him when Kenseth’s teammate Kyle Busch shoved Bowman forward, which launched Bowman’s No. 88 into Kenseth’s No. 20, sending Kenseth sliding backward and into the turn 1 wall. The late misfortune dropped Kenseth all the way back to 21st-place in the final running order and out of championship contention, as he failed to advance by 19 points. Busch recovered from the incident involving his teammate to finish second behind Logano and to transfer into the Championship 4 round at Homestead where he will look to defend his title from last season.
Despite accomplishing his main goal of advancing, Busch was in a bittersweet mood over the incident.
“Well, right now it feels pretty [lousy], but tomorrow it might feel a lot better,” Busch said. “I'm not sure, depends on what Matt's interpretation is, and whether or not he can forgive. You know, I just feel really bad about what happened there on that last restart. It just wasn't what I anticipated having happen, and I just feel bad. The 20 should have been the Gibbs car to go through, and I was just trying to make a position there on the 88, felt like I was to his inside and had the position. It translated into the 20 crashing. That’s not how at all I foresaw that going.”
Following behind race winner Logano and reigning champion Busch was Kyle Larson, who rallied from an opening lap spin to finish third, followed by Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Alex Bowman, who started on pole and led a race-high 94 laps in his eighth event substituting for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished 6th while Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Paul Menard rounded out the top-10. Like Kenseth, Harvick, Busch and veteran Denny Hamlin were left on the outside and failed to advance to Homestead while six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and two-time championship runner-up Carl Edwards already secured their places for Homestead after winning the previous rounds at Martinsville and Texas in the Round of 8.
Johnson finished 38th due to being involved in a midway incident, where he ran into the back of Greg Biffle and Austin Dillon, which damaged the oil cooler from his car, but he will transfer to the season-finale at Homestead and look to achieve his elusive seventh Sprint Cup championship, which will place him in a tie with legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most Sprint Cup titles in NASCAR history. Edwards finished 19th and will also transfer to Homestead with the goal of securing his first Sprint Cup championship in his 12th season. Denny Hamlin, who started this season winning the Daytona 500 in the closest margin of victory in the 500 history and added victories from Watkins Glen and Richmond to establish his momentum for his first championship, finished in seventh-place but failed to advance to the final round by six points. “We took two tires and I knocked my right front trying to avoid the 20, [Kenseth], and really hurt the good rubber that I did have on my tires. That hampered us a little bit and we climbed back. We just needed those guys to tussle up front a little bit more, but proud of my whole FedEx team this whole year. Our Camrys have been fast and giving us a chance to win each and every week and we’ll go to Homestead and try to win that one and get our fourth win of the year.” Kevin Harvick, who came into today’s event having won five of six Phoenix events and facing an 18-point deficit, never led a lap and finished in fourth-place, leaving him 20 points outside of the cutline and eliminated from championship contention. Along with missing an opportunity of getting his second Cup championship, this will mark the first time in the three-year running of the Chase Grid where Harvick will not be a contender in the Championship 4 round. “We just started way too far off on Friday.” Harvick stated. “We never got a handle on the racecar. They made it a ton better in the race and we were in contention there at the end and just came up short. Just really proud of everybody for the effort that they put in. It was a very challenging Chase for us for all the mechanical failures and situations that we had going on. We kept rebounding and winning races and today we were a lap down and came back to have a chance at the end. That says a lot about the character of our race team and we just came up short this year.” Harvick’s teammate Kurt Busch finished a strong fifth-place but coming into this weekend’s event in a “must-win situation” due to being placed in a 34-point deficit following last weekend’s event at Texas, he failed to win and thus, he failed to advance by 37 points as both drivers representing Stewart-Haas Racing will not contend for this year’s title. “We got up to the front as high as third and sniffed the front to try to win because we had to win to advance. We didn’t get the job done. The long run speed is where our Achilles Heel was these last few Chase races. It’s a little disappointing, maybe we can pinpoint that as our exact problem and figure out how to fix that, but really proud of [crew chief] Tony Gibson and everybody that worked on these cars all year-long from Stewart-Haas Racing. Thanks to Haas Automation, Monster Energy, Chevrolet, we finished fifth today, we battled hard we just didn’t have enough. You’ve got to have it all if you want to be in that championship four.” With the 2016 NASCAR season one race away from concluding, next Sunday’s season-finale, featuring Johnson as the lone Hendrick Motorsports contender, Logano as the lone Team Penske contender and Busch and Edwards as the two Joe Gibbs Racing contenders for the championship, will mark the final Sprint Cup event for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart and rookie Brian Scott.