Phoenix takeaways: Keselowski's title hopes survive in a race where the wall caught on fire

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• Two days before Sunday’s race at Phoenix, Denny Hamlin was adamant that he could beat Brad Keselowski for the final spot in next week’s Cup Series final four without winning the race.

Why? Hamlin pointed out that he had scored 17 more points than Keselowski at Texas thanks to stage points. With a deficit of 19 points, a similar scenario could happen at Phoenix.

By golly, it did. Hamlin scored 19 points over the first two stages of Sunday’s race. Keselowski didn’t score any. As the third stage began, the two drivers were in a heads-up race to see who made the final at Homestead — provided Ryan Blaney or Chase Elliott didn’t win the race.

[Matt Kenseth wins at Phoenix]

Hamlin had the edge for most of that second stage until he got put into the wall by Elliott. That opened the door for Keselowski, who simply had to survive the race and hope Elliott or Blaney didn’t win to get in the final four.

And even that seemed like a dangerous proposition. Elliott took the lead with 20 laps to go after Keselowski faded back after the race’s final restart. As cars bunched up ahead of Keselowski, he went wide to avoid them. But that move ended up with Keselowski way wide and out of the groove in turn 1.

He gathered the car up and kept going. Most importantly, Matt Kenseth passed Elliott with nine laps to go for the win, sealing Keselowski’s spot in the final alongside Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

“We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today,” Keselowski, who finished 16th, said. “I am glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure. I am just looking forward to going to Homestead. This feels a little bit like Christmas. Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that.”

[Run-in between Hamlin and Elliott again proves right and wrong can depend on those involved]

Keselowski will probably view himself as an underdog of sorts for the title. The 2012 champion’s team hasn’t had the intermediate track speed that Busch and (especially) Truex have had. And Harvick won the most recent race at a 1.5-mile track.

But the No. 2 team’s resiliency is something to behold — and could be an underrated asset. Keselowski finished fifth last week after going a lap down just two minutes after the race started. And he’s had similar comebacks in the regular season.

“[Harvick] has been really good and come on strong and I feel like we have put in a good effort here over the last few weeks to make sure we had a little more speed in our cars going to Homestead,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said. “We get in these types of situations and I think Brad will be able to find a little more and we just need to go down there and do what we do all year, give it our best.”

• The wall caught on fire on Sunday.

(Via NBC)

We repeat. THE WALL CAUGHT ON FIRE ON SUNDAY.

(Via NBC)

A fire happened in the middle of the SAFER barrier in turn 3 after Chris Buescher’s car slammed into the wall. Hot pieces of brake rotor apparently flew in between the concrete barriers and caused the foam on the inside of the wall to catch on fire.

The race had to be red-flagged as a result.

We expected something crazy to happen on Sunday, but we figured it’d be with the rules given the race’s recent history. Each of the last two fall races at Phoenix included rules violations penalized that weren’t penalized in the spring race at the track.

We weren’t expecting the damn wall to catch on fire.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 10th after going two laps down thanks to a flat tire late in the race. Junior got the laps back by taking a wavearound to get one lap down and then getting the free pass for his other lap back.

Unless Junior wins at Homestead next week, his 2015 win at Phoenix will be the last of his career. And unless Matt Kenseth wins at Homestead, Sunday’s race will be the last of Kenseth’s career. Both drivers entered the series full-time in the year 2000 and are set to go out together at the end of 2017.

“So, happy for Matt,” Junior said. Me and him kind of going out at the same time. I’m so happy for him to be able to win and have some joy in his life and celebrate, but this place has been really good to me and we worked really hard today trying to get our car better and we made some improvements, but we still don’t have the kind of speed that we wish we had. We really wore ourselves out trying to figure it out.”

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!