AVONDALE, Ariz. — After more than three hours of racing, NASCAR’s championship field was decided over two frenzied overtime restarts.
Matt Kenseth probably should have won Sunday to earn an automatic berth into next week’s title-deciding race. But the first attempt at a two-lap sprint to the finish went haywire and Kenseth collided with Alex Bowman.
Just like that, Joey Logano was the new leader and defending NASCAR champion Kyle Busch was second. The two started the day tied in the standings, and any 1-2 finish would put them both in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Logano won the race — the second time in this Chase he used a victory in an elimination race to advance — and will race for his first Sprint Cup title next Sunday. 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.
“I feel like I just won the Daytona 500 again.”
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.
JGR, which was trying to get all four of its Toyotas into the final, wound up with only two and Busch wasn’t feeling celebratory. He believed his contact with Bowman triggered the accident that wrecked Kenseth’s season.
“It’s really unfortunate and devastating to have the race come down like that,” Busch said. “That’s so frustrating and aggravating, and I feel horrible.”
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 Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Gibbs drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin were also knocked out of the field.
“Disappointing would be the way to put it lightly,” Kenseth said. “Finish that race five minutes before that, looked like we had a chance to go race for a championship. It was a big swing in 10 or 15 minutes.”
Hamlin finished seventh after a bizarre decision not to pit with the rest of the field for track position. Although it gave him a brief lead, he was no match for drivers with fresh tires.
“I knew it was going to be an uphill climb,” Hamlin said.
Pit-road penalties: NASCAR picked Sunday to enforce a rule against passing the pace car when a driver dips onto pit road for a stop. Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were both penalized for the infraction, and the punishment was holding the car for a lap on pit road.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were incredulous.
“I don’t understand that in the least little bit,” Johnson said on his radio. “This is absolutely ridiculous, NASCAR. I have no clue what I did wrong.”
Johnson said he’ll ask for clarification this week.
“In 15 years, that has never been a concern, and I was always told that the last thing NASCAR wanted to do would be to penalize the leader,” Johnson said. “I am still baffled, and I don’t know if I will stop being baffled.”
Bowman out front: Alex Bowman badly wants a job for next year, and his continued strong pace as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. is giving him a solid case to present to prospective employers.
Bowman had led just nine laps in his first 79 career Sprint Cup races. Six of those laps were earlier this year driving Earnhardt’s Chevrolet. A pole-winning run for Sunday’s race helped Bowman lead a race-high 194 laps and was attempting to win the race before the late accident. He faded to sixth, and felt bad about his incident with Kenseth.
“I hate it for Matt. I would have raced the hell out of him for the win, but definitely don’t want to do that,” Bowman said. “Hate that, and it ruined our day, too. So it’s unfortunate.”
Up next: The season finale at Homestead, where the championship will be decided. Harvick won the race in 2014 to win his championship, and Kyle Busch won last year to claim the title.