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Tuesday November 21st, 2017 8:38PM

Payback from Martinsville puts Hamlin out of title race

By Reid Spencer-NASCAR Wire Service
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AVONDALE, Ariz. – During driver introductions before Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway, Denny Hamlin was roundly booed for something that happened nearly 2,000 miles away.

Two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin shoved the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott into the turn 3 wall while Elliott was leading with fewer than four laps left. The fans at Phoenix hadn’t forgotten what had happened.

Payback, whether intentional or not, came on lap 270 on Sunday. Racing for the third position, Elliott squeezed Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the outside wall off turn 4. Smoke streamed from Hamlin’s car as a tire rubbed against the wheel well.

Five laps later, Hamlin’s tire blew, launching his car into the turn 3 wall. The impact damaged the No. 11 Toyota beyond repair, and Hamlin exited the race in 35th place, eliminated from next Sunday’s Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Each person had their own opinion of how they do things, and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances,” Hamlin said. “So, I mean, you know, it’s just part of racing.

“I got into him and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage, and that’s the way it is. We did a great job all day. This is the best car I’ve had in a very long time. We just got behind on the pit stops, and then that just gave those guys an opportunity to get close.”

Too close, as it turned out.

Jimmie Johnson’s Title Hopes Explode With Blown Tire At Phoenix

There won’t be an eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title for Jimmie Johnson this year.

With less than one lap left in the second stage of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway, the cutoff race for next Sunday’s Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson popped his right front tire as his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet barreled into turn 3 at the one-mile track.

Hard contact with the wall knocked the seven-time champion out of the race in 39th-place, ending the title run for a driver who need nothing short of a victory at Phoenix to advance to the final round of the Playoff.

“I really didn’t have any warning,” Johnson said after exiting the infield care center. “I knew I was hard on the brakes, but the run before we didn’t have any issues reported back. So I felt like I was kind of doing the same thing. Unfortunately, with so few laps to go to the end of the stage, as soon as I went in the corner and touched the brakes, the right front just blew.

“I hate it for this team. They’ve worked so hard all year long, and I’m very proud of their efforts. It’s obviously not the result that we want, but we’re Hendrick strong and I’m proud of my Team 48. Unfortunately, we won’t have a chance to make eight this year, but we’ll come back next year and try real hard.”

Even without the accident, Johnson would have faced an uphill battle. He entered Phoenix eighth in the Playoff standings, needing a win to advance. Johnson finished 10th in the first stage and was running 11th on lap 150 when he hit the wall.

“The last couple of months we’ve been staying alive, with the Round of 8, and then the Round of 4, you can’t just stay alive,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders, and we just haven’t been there, unfortunately.

“Again, I’m very thankful for all the hard work that’s gone into this and all the efforts from (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and the team, but we just can’t get there right now. We’ll try again next weekend and then do some good changes over the off-season and come back next year and be ready to go.”

Matt Kenseth’s Win Sends Brad Keselowski Into Championship 4

Brad Keselowski’s prospects of qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race weren’t looking good.

Keselowski entered Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway with a 19-point lead over Denny Hamlin for the final spot in the season finale at homestead-Miami Speedway, but by the end of the second stage of the race, his advantage was gone.

Hamlin finished second in the first stage and won the second to pull even with Keselowski, who was mired in traffic with an ill-handling No. 2 Team Penske Ford and scored no points in either of the first two stages.

Hamlin led 193 laps and appeared headed to Homestead before eventual race runner-up Chase Elliott pinched Hamlin’s Toyota into the outside wall. Five laps later, Hamlin was out of the race after a blown tire and hard contact with the turn 3 wall, and Keselowski preserved his spot in the championship race with a 16th-place finish.

“It kind of feels a little bit like Christmas,” Keselowski said. “We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today. I’m glad I don’t have to relive this day, that’s for sure. I’m just looking forward to going to Homestead.

“Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive, and it ended up paying off in the end.”

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