AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — As Matt Kenseth left the garage at Phoenix International Raceway, his crew chief hung his arm over the driver in an attempt to lift their spirits.
Kenseth had been two laps away from victory and a spot in next week’s championship race.
Instead, he had a wrecked race car and a pink slip from NASCAR’s playoffs.
«I felt so bad for him. He drove his heart out all day long and it’s just one of those things that happens,» said team owner Joe Gibbs.
It was a split-second decision that cost Kenseth his season, but opened the door for teammate Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, his most despised rival a year ago.
A late caution forced Kenseth, only two trips around Phoenix away from the win, to withstand a two-lap overtime shootout to collect his checkered flag. He was in the lead and on the outside of Alex Bowman when Busch bumped into Bowman.
Bowman bobbled but was still on the bottom line as he and Kenseth entered the corner. Kenseth dropped low because spotter Chris Osborne told him he was clear, but he and Bowman instead collided.
Just like that, Kenseth was done.
«It’s a team effort. Win as a team, lose as a team. I can’t blame Chris,» Kenseth said. «I didn’t see what happened. He said I was clear, so I started looking toward the corner and got turned around. So many things happen in a hurry. All I know is I was looking at the corner, trying to think about getting off turn 2 to try to go win the race.»
The sequence allowed both Logano and Busch to advance into next Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But Busch was initially focused only on redeeming himself with Kenseth because he believed his contact with Bowman on the restart triggered the Kenseth crash.
Joe Gibbs Racing had four drivers in the round of eight and was vying to sweep the championship field. Carl Edwards went to Phoenix already locked into the finale, but three Gibbs drivers were vying for the remaining two slots. They dismissed all notion of cutthroat competition, and the four drivers spent Saturday morning hiking a nearby mountain together.
So Busch felt awful about Kenseth’s turbulent turn.
«Right now it feels pretty (expletive), 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. I just feel really bad about what happened there on that last restart. The 20 (Kenseth) should have been the Gibbs car to go through.»
Osborne, though, accepted blame for the accident after falsely indicating it was safe to move to the bottom lane. He posted on Twitter an apology for his role in the Kenseth’s Chase ending. He said this error was «on me!!»
Curiously, there’s a second defining moment of Kenseth’s season that also was linked to a spotter.
On the last lap of the Daytona 500, Kenseth threw a block that backfired and helped teammate Denny Hamlin win the race. At the time, Osborne was recovering from a car accident, and there was speculation that the replacement spotter contributed to Kenseth’s incorrect decision to block.
Kenseth, meanwhile, failed to advance to the finale in all three of its years since the creation of the elimination format.
Logano is going back for the second time in three years and got there by winning an elimination race for the second time of these playoffs. He’ll be trying to give Roger Penske a season sweep during its 50th anniversary season. Simon Pagenaud won the IndyCar title in September.
«I’ve never felt this good about a win before,» Logano said. «There was so much on the line and everyone brings their A-game when it comes to winning championships and this team did it.»
Busch finished second and earned a chance to defend last year’s title. He’ll meet Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who is seeking a record-tying seventh championship, in Homestead.
Eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday were Kevin Harvick, an eight-time winner at Phoenix who had raced in the last two finales, as well as his Stewart-Haas Racingteammate Kurt Busch. Gibbs drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin were also knocked out of the field.