Drama in the Desert

Photo Credit: Ralph Freso/AP

Rajan Khanna/Staff Reporter

The penultimate race of the 2017 NASCAR Season took place at Phoenix International Raceway this past weekend. The racing was full of surprises, ranging from rookie mistakes in the shadow of championship glory, to an upset win by a non-playoff contender. This revamped playoff format resets all contenders to 4000 points and removes playoff points. The only factor in crowing the champion is the highest finisher at Homestead. No driver will earn stage points, but the stages will still be present.

In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Johnny Sauter took the checkered flag after a wreck filled Lucas Oil 150. The drivers eliminated from contention are Ben Rhodes and John Hunter Nemechek. Rhodes was wrecked by Austin Cindric late in the race and was forced to retire from the race. The accident was very similar to an accident between Carl Edwards and Joey Logano at the 2016 Ford Ecoboost 400. Logano had a much better restart and tried to drop under Edwards but Edwards attempted a block and spun himself around. He then hit the inside wall before bouncing and hitting the outside wall. The incident between Rhodes and Cindric had Cindric in Logano’s position and Rhodes in Edward’s position. Rhodes attempted to block Cindric’s advance and was ultimately put into the wall and out of contention. Rhodes was apprehensive about Cindric’s decision: ““He put me in a bad place and I’m trying to do everything I could to keep my spot. I’m not sure it was the right move on his part.”

Fellow Toyota driver Matt Crafton offered his opinion on the matter: “I told Ben (Rhodes), the 19 (Austin Cindric) better not finish Homestead.” Cindric claimed the wreck was not intentional. He thought that restart was his only chance to get past him. Kyle Busch motorsports teammates Christopher Bell and Noah Gragson also collided in a separate accident. Both were battling for the lead with seven laps to go and crashed. They both sustained damage but Bell was able to finish the race in the top ten. There was also a wild six wide moment which ended in disaster as underdog, Ryan Truex, was taken out of the race. He has been consistently improving throughout the season and now contends for wins weekly. After the race concluded, the four drivers that advanced into the championship field are: Johnny Sauter, Austin Cindric, Matt Crafton, and Christopher Bell.

Photo Courtesy: Ralph Freso/AP

The NASCAR XFINITY Series race was much tamer. The JR Motorsports teams had quite an issue to solve prior to the race. They use Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pit crews since they are very experienced, and no rule prevents pit crews from freely switching between series’. Their usual pit crews were stuck in Alabama due to a flight issue and were unable to make it in time for the Ticket Galaxy 200. They were forced to create a brand-new pit crew just before the race, but it paid off. William Byron still came home victorious in the desert, claiming his fourth win of the 2017 season. He had not lead any laps until lap 183 where his crew chief made the decision to take only two tires. Phoenix is known for giving stock cars a “clean-air advantage.” That gives the car in the lead an aerodynamic advantage since it is not impeded by drag from another car. Although he won, he was not dominant whatsoever. Ryan Blaney was able to win two of the three stages despite his ineligibility to earn points in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Only one major accident happened in the race, involving Brennan Poole and Caesar Bacarella. Bacarella, who was making his first career NASCAR XFINITY start, shot up the track while Poole tried to go to the bottom. Poole commented on the accident, “I saw (Bacarella) go in (to Turn 1), and we were going to kind of go to the top to go around him, and he slid up so I tried to go to the bottom,” Poole said. “Bad luck, bad circumstances.” Bacarella did not publicly comment on the incident. The four drivers that advanced and continue in the championship hunt are: William Byron, Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, and Daniel Hemric. All four contenders drive Chevrolet stock cars.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series had an exciting chain of events. Matt Kenseth stole the show after taking the lead from Chase Elliott with just nine laps left, Elliott gets retribution against Denny Hamlin for the Martinsville incident, and Brad Keselowski just barely stays in contention to advance to Miami. The Can Am 500 was an impressive race and brought excitement to the 2017 playoffs. Recently announcing his retirement from full time racing, Matt Kenseth brought himself a story book ending to his career, claiming victory for him and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. He had a lackluster season and was expected to retire without leaving a mark on 2017, but he changed that prediction. Kenseth commented on his win, “With only two (races) left, I didn’t think we probably had a good chance of getting back to Victory Lane. It’s been, I don’t know how many races – somebody’s probably going to tell me tonight – but it’s been at least 50 or 60, so it’s been a long time.”

With his win also brought heartbreak to Chase Elliott. Elliott has had many near wins this season and this just adds to it. He will have one final chance to get his first career win in 2017 at the Ford Ecoboost 400. Although Elliott did not win, his fans had a small victory as Chase got his revenge against Denny Hamlin for the Martinsville incident. Elliott forced Hamlin up to the outside wall and gave almost no room where Hamlin was pushed into the wall and damaged. This left him with a tire rub that caused him to spin and sustain heavy damage. Once the race came to an end, the four championship drivers are: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski.