When the dust settled on the Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs, four were left standing and ready to fight for a championship. With Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick already locked into the Championship Round, Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch joined them with a win and runner-up finish in Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway.
Busch started on the pole alongside Joey Logano. Hamlin qualified third alongside Truex. Like Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson, who were sixth and seven in the standings, required wins or strong finishes with help to clinch final round spots, while Chase Elliott, whose Round of 8 has seen finishes outside the top twenty, must win. Larson and Elliott were in row three, while Blaney was tenth.
Stages #1 and 2
As Busch led the way, Hamlin took second from Logano on lap seven.
After 67 laps, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall in turn four to bring out the yellow flag. The leaders pitted, with Busch being the first to exit pit road while Daniel Suárez received a speeding penalty. Brad Keselowski stayed out along with William Byron to take the lead.
The four-lap run to the green-checkered flag saw Byron sink out of the top five and Hamlin take the stage win ahead of Elliott, Busch, Logano, Larson, Keselowski, Blaney, Byron, Harvick, and Kurt Busch.
Between stages, Alex Bowman and Joey Gase were respectively penalised for speeding and having a crewman over the wall too soon.
Stage #2 opened on lap 82 with Hamlin leading, but he quickly fell back as Logano took the lead. The rest of the stage ran green as Logano took the stage victory ahead of Hamlin, Elliott, Ky. Busch, Blaney, Truex, Harvick, Larson, Keselowski, and Ku. Busch.
Before the final stage, Ku. Busch and Joe Nemechek – the latter making his record-tying 1,185th national series start – were slapped with infractions for speeding and pitting too soon, respectively.
The race resumed on lap 159. After seven laps, Elliott’s championship hopes came to an end while running in the top five when his tyre went down and he slammed into the turn two wall. During the ensuing caution, Austin Dillon and David Ragan suffered speeding and pitting too early penalties.
The green flag waved on lap 173, with Logano leading four laps before Hamlin retook the position. Meanwhile, Gase exited the race with an engine issue. Ragan and Reed Sorenson also later retired with suspension and brake problems, respectively.
Into the lap 230s, drivers began pitting under green. Dillon, Ryan Newman, and Darrell Wallace Jr. suffered speeding infractions during their stops.
On lap 303, John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall for the caution. Hamlin led the field to the restart on lap 309 and held Busch off for his sixth win of the year.
As the JGR drivers finished in the top two, they join team-mate Truex and the lone Ford of Harvick in the final round. The four will battle it out at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship, with Hamlin being the lone contender without a title of his own. Truex, Busch, and Harvick are also racing in the Championship Round for the second year in a row.
“What a day,” Hamlin said on Twitter. “This is all that we could have ever asked for, a chance to race for a championship, and now we have that. We performed amazing today here in Phoenix, got our sixth win of the season, and now we go to Miami next weekend with a chance. We’re on our house money, we earned our right to be there.”