Then there was one. That’s right readers, NASCAR’s championship weekend looms as three drivers celebrate visits to Victory Lane during the pre-championship weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
Lucas Oil 150
2016 Camping World Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter is on his way to a follow-up championship, heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway, after making his second trip to Victory Lane in the last two weeks at Phoenix International Raceway. Although Truck Series playoff contender Christopher Bell led the 32-car field to the wave of the green flag during Friday night’s Lucas Oil 150 and even took both the first two Stage wins, the Series point leader wrecked his Kyle Busch Toyota during an intense side-by-side duel with seven laps left.
This gave Johnny Sauter the chance to inherit the lead after a restart on Lap 149 of 150, to hold off John Hunter Nemecheck for the race win by .668 seconds for his fourth win of the season and the 17th of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career.
“We didn’t have the best truck for this race,” said Sauter. “Although it was good on long runs, Nemechek had fresher tires, but I knew if I could have a good restart on Turn 1 and get a good launch off that corner, we would be ok.”
By the time Sauter pulled away over the final two laps, pole sitter Bell had clinched a spot in the Championship four race. So had two-time series champion Matt Crafton, who finished third in each of the first two stages to wrap up his place in the finale on points. Race winner Sauter and Austin Cindric round out the top four 2017 Championship contenders going into the final race weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Ticket Galaxy 200
Despite last weekend’s winner, Erik Jones, leading the 40-car field to the wave of the green flag during Saturday’s XFINITY Series pre-championship race, a former Camping World Truck Series driver was the one able to pull off the unforeseen win in the Ticket Galaxy 200.
Before JR Motorsports driver William Byron could take this win, he had to fend off the pole sitter and Stage 1 and 2 winner Ryan Blaney. Race winner Byron took the lead off pit road on Lap 183 of 200 after taking only right-side tires. As Daniel Hemric, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer battled behind him, Byron pulled away to beat Blaney to the finish line by .960 seconds.
“The second-to-last run of the race it took off on the long run,” said Byron, who was knocked out of the Truck Series Playoff last year when his engine blew at Phoenix. “I got up to third, and we got the two tires on it, and we were able to stay up there.
“I felt like clean air was pretty important,” he added. “The No. 20, No. 22 and us were all running pretty similar. Whoever was in third would lose distance to the front two after probably 20 or 30 laps. We just had to adjust on it and make sure we got it right for the last pit stop, and the guys on my pickup pit crew did an awesome job making all of this possible.”
The JRM teams found out Saturday morning that their pit crews wouldn’t make it to Phoenix in time for the race because their plane had been diverted to Little Rock, Ark., with a mechanical problem. That led to a scramble for crew members pieced together from Hendrick Motorsports development crews.
Thanks to this last minute change, Byron not only won the XFINITY Series pre-championship race, but also secured a spot in the top four drivers who are vying for the 2017 XFINITY Series Championship title next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The other three remaining drivers are Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric.
While wins for both the Camping World Truck and XFINITY Series drivers meant moving on to a potential championship next weekend at Homestead-Miami, the winner of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race shook up the Championship four field.
Although the No. 21 of Ryan Blaney would lead the field to the wave of the green flag and the No. 42 of Kyle Larson would take the Stage 1 win, it wasn’t Cup Series young guns who would leave fans talking following the wave of the checkered flag.
While Monster Energy Cup Series veteran Denny Hamlin took over the race lead as well as the Stage 2 win, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was squeezed into the outside wall on Lap 270, where he would blow a tire and shoot headlong into the Turn 3 wall on Lap 275.
This gave Martin Truex, Jr. and Chase Elliott the chance to race for the win. That is, until a middle-aged driver who NASCAR had all but left for dead drove a dagger through the heart of a perpetual runner-up driver. With nine laps left in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, veteran driver Matt Kenseth passed 21-year-old Chase Elliott for the lead and pulled away to win his first race since the July 2016 New Hampshire race.
“This win is indescribable,” said Kenseth. “With only two races left, I didn’t think we had a good chance of getting back to Victory Lane. It’s been a long time and we have had a lot of close ones and I felt like it was never meant to be, and this weekend changed everything.”
While this win broke a 51-event winless streak for the current No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver, who recently announced that he will not return to NASCAR in 2018, the win also deprived Elliott of a chance to run for the series championship next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway and kept Chevrolet out of the title race. The win also was a gift to Brad Keselowski, who survived a lackluster afternoon with enough points to advance to the Championship 4 event.
Keselowski, who muscled an ill-handling car to a 16th-place finish and beat polesitter Ryan Blaney for the final berth in the championship race, moves on to Homestead to battle Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch for the series title next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Stay tuned to RacingJunk.com as the Countdown to the NASCAR Championship comes to a close next weekend in Homestead.