Road to the Monster Energy Cup: Part 5

NASCAR

Martin Truex Jr. celebrates the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Photo: Getty Images)

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This is the last of a five-part series recapping the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. See Also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Kansas Speedway

Martin Truex Jr. continued his mighty march to Miami with his seventh victory of the season at Kansas Speedway, putting an exclamation mark on the second round of the playoffs with two wins in a three-week stretch.

NASCARHe was among the eight drivers who advanced to the semifinal round that would open the next weekend at Martinsville Speedway but the only one with a stat sheet that made him a near-certainty to qualify for The Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

With the playoff bonus points Truex banked this season, he was already 52 above the cutoff that would determine the four title contenders who’ll race for a championship – before a single wheel was turned in the semifinals!

Truex started the Kansas race from the pole and led twice for 91 laps, including the final 57 trips around the 1.5-mile Kansas City oval. His margin of victory over runner-up Kyle Busch was 2.2 seconds with Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin completing the top five.

The Hollywood Casino 400 was an elimination race with four playoff participants dropped from title contention. Kyle Larson was sidelined by engine failure and finished 39th. Matt Kenseth was disqualified for having too many men over the wall working on his car during a pit stop under caution, a rule he said he was unaware of. Kenseth placed 37th. Accidents sidelined Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray – saddling them with finishes of 29th and 34th, respectively. Race Story | Race Results

Martinsville Speedway

With late-race fireworks exploding all around him, Kyle Busch drove through the sparks and sped to his fifth victory of the season – advancing to The Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he would race for his second Cup Series championship in three years.

NASCARAfter Chase Elliott ran Brad Keselowski up the racetrack and out of the lead ... and after Denny Hamlin then intentionally moved Elliott out of first place and into the wall, Busch tapped Hamlin’s rear bumper to create the opening he needed to charge past his teammate and claim victory after positioning himself for the win coming out of the day’s final restart – set up by the 11th caution that would send the race five laps past its scheduled distance.

As Hamlin hunted Elliott and closed the gap with laps running out, he charged into the rear end of the No. 24 Chevrolet, sending it into a spin and into the outside wall. Down the stretch, it had looked as if Elliott may finally collect his first Cup Series win. He led a race-high 123 laps, including a stretch of 73 straight in the second half.

Elliott surrendered the top spot to Keselowski but regained it by running the 2012 champion wide coming out of the next-to-last restart and settling into the lead again before Hamlin’s unsettling maneuver the next time around the Virginia half-mile left Elliott with only a 27th-place finish. On the cool-down lap, Elliott drove alongside Hamlin and pinched his car against the outside wall. They confronted each other on pit road after exiting their cars and exchanged words as NASCAR officials intervened. Race Story | Race Results

Texas Motor Speedway

Kevin Harvick swept past race leader Martin Truex Jr. 10 laps from the finish and kept his No. 4 stewart-Haas Racing Ford in front the rest of the way to claim victory in Texas, snapping Truex’s three-race winning streak on mile-and-a-half ovals.

NASCARTruex was poised to continue his post-season dominance of intermediate tracks, leading for a stretch of 37 laps as the race neared an end before Harvick’s late pass relegated him to second place – 1.5 seconds behind at the checkered flag. Denny Hamlin rode home in third place with Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski completing the top five.

The win moved Harvick into The Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he would be joined by Martinsville winner Kyle Busch and Truex, who had accumulated enough points to advance despite going 0-for-2 in the semifinal round. That left one spot available in the championship race in South Florida.

Coming out of Texas, Keselowski led Hamlin by 19 points in the battle for that final transfer spot.

Stage wins in Texas went to Harvick and Kyle Larson. Truex led a race-high 107 laps. Pole winner Kurt Busch failed to lead a lap but had top-10 finishes in each of the first two stages and placed ninth overall. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson labored to a 27th-place finish in his bid for a season sweep at TMS and was now at the bottom of the post-season standings, 51 points below the cutoff to advance. Race Story | Race Results

Phoenix Raceway

Matt Kenseth won the Can-Am 500, the 39th Cup Series win of his career. He passed Chase Elliott on Lap 303 of 312 to take the lead in what may prove to be the final win of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. Kenseth does not have a ride for the 2018 season.

NASCARElliott, who had to win in Phoenix to advance to The Championship 4, pushed his way to the front with an aggressive move on Denny Hamlin that was reminiscent of Hamlin’s move on Elliott two weeks before in Martinsville. Elliott fell just sort of his quest, finishing second for the seventh time in his career.

Hamlin had a strong car all day, leading three times for 193 laps and picking up 19 stage points in his attempt to land the final playoff spot. A flat tire put the No. 11 Toyota into the wall late in the race, dashing Hamlin's chance to advance.

Jimmie Johnson, who also needed a win to advance to the next round, suffered a blown tire just one lap short of the caution at the end of Stage 2, ending his bid for an eighth championship. Brad Keselowski, after an up-and-down day, secured the final spot in The Championship 4 on points, finishing 16th in the race.

The top five finishers at Phoenix were Kenseth, Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Kevin Harvick. The four drivers racing for a Championship in Miami were Harvick, Truex, Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Race Story | Race Results

Homestead-Miami Speedway

Martin Truex Jr. continued his post-season domination of mile-and-a-half ovals at Homestead-Miami Speedway, holding off a late charge from Kyle Busch to win the Ford EcoBoost 400 and claim his first Monster Energy Series championship.

NASCARTruex won four of the five playoff races run on intermediate-sized ovals in 2017 including the season finale in South Florida, in which there was little drama until the closing laps. All qualifiers in The Championship 4 – Truex, Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski – ran consistently in the top five for much of the day and all came away with top-10 finishes.

Down the stretch, Busch drove past Harvick to take second place and then set his sights on Truex, who kept his rival in the rear-view mirror and delivered Furniture Row Racing’s first Cup Series title. The margin of victory over Busch was .68 seconds. Kyle Larson led a race-high 145 laps and ran third with Harvick and Chase Elliott completing the top five. Keselowski came home in seventh place.

Pole winner Denny Hamlin failed to lead a lap and placed ninth. Truex started alongside Hamlin on the front row and quickly put the field behind him at the drop of the green flag – leading four times for 78 laps, matching his car number. Race Story | Race Results

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