It’s a cliché, but it all comes down to this.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship will be decided on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway after a spectacular penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway. Almost by default, Brad Keselowski held on to his transfer spot to join Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. in the Championship 4.
Keselowski did so only after Chase Elliott essentially enacted revenge on Denny Hamlin, who up to that point had overtaken the 2012 champion in the standings. With Elliott and Ryan Blaney unable to win after Hamlin drilled the wall due to an Elliott-aided cut tire, Keselowski coasted to a championship berth.
Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth likely bookended his career by stealing the spotlight (and a championship berth) from Elliott with nine laps to go. It was a bitter defeat for Elliott, but a fairy-tale ending regardless for Kenseth, the 2003 champion who should have never been forced into a de facto retirement in the first place.
It was a made-for-television drama that served as a perfect prelude to what’s an always compelling championship race.
Here’s what we learned in the desert over the weekend.
The most unjust aspect of Matt Kenseth announcing two weeks ago that he was no longer looking for a job in NASCAR was that he simply deserved more.
The 2003 Winston Cup champion had hoped up until late August that he could still secure a ride at Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart-Haas Racing. After all, how could a contending team with an available seat not want a 39-race winning champion who always contends for the championship?
Instead, Hendrick chose to immediately hire super prodigy William Byron and Alex Bowman instead of instilling Kenseth to serve as a one-year veteran stopgap. Stewart-Haas opted for Aric Almirola and longtime supporter Smithfield Foods.  Beyond the fact that he could contend for a championship in a one-off role, Kenseth deserved the chance to have the send-off that the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were afforded.
Even though Kenseth doesn’t have the fan bases of those three superstars, he somehow managed to equal their longevity. He won races, connected to fans as a blue-collar everyman and even prompted NASCAR to implement a playoff format when he won his title on a one-win consistency laded campaign.  He mattered, and he deserved recognition for it.
So even though he won’t get to take a victory lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Dale Jr. or receive a horse from Texas Motor Speedway’s Eddie Gossage, Kenseth got his moment in the spotlight with the fans regardless. And he did so in a way that best encapsulates his entire career: He won.
He first cracked the Busch Series in the late 1990s not because he had a famous last name or brought a big check. He won races. Kenseth and rival-turned-friend Robbie Reiser kept winning in the Busch Series until they were bought and brought into Roush Racing. And they kept on winning.
Kenseth made it to the highest levels of stock car racing on the strength of his résumé alone and it was only fitting that with one race remaining this season that he finally got back to victory lane to prove that he still has what it takes.
Kenseth deserves one more season, a final ride into the sunset, but at least he will always have Sunday. Standing on top of his No. 20 Toyota, fists clenched and pointed toward the heavens, soaking in a season’s worth of appreciation. Matt Kenseth went out a winner.
Let’s talk about Denny Hamlin vs. Chase Elliott Part 2, shall we?
Two weeks after Hamlin shoved Elliott up the track and into the wall at corner entry, denying the second-year driver a shot at the championship, Elliott drove hard into the back of Hamlin at Phoenix in the closing laps of the Can-Am 500.
Elliott tagged Hamlin on corner exit and then drove him hard into the outside front-stretch retaining wall. The resulting contact cut a tire on Hamlin’s Toyota, sending him into the wall and out of the race a few laps later. It was essentially the same thing.
Elliott wouldn’t admit to wrecking Hamlin after the race, saying that he raced Hamlin the way he was raced at Martinsville, but that’s a pretty blatant statement in its own right. Elliott believes Hamlin wrecked him at Martinsville, and Elliott chose to race him the way he was raced two weeks later at Phoenix.
Ergo, Elliott did everything but intentionally wreck Hamlin in return. And that’s perfectly OK. That’s racing.
Hamlin lived by the bumper at Martinsville and he died by it at Phoenix. Hamlin shouldn’t bemoan Elliott’s decision because he knows he probably should have won in Virginia to make this a moot point. Likewise, Elliott can’t hold too much over Hamlin now because Elliott should have found some way to hold off Kenseth in Arizona.
In short, they’re perfectly even. Square. Does this mean that it’s over? Who knows? I guess we’re going to find out next year.
For those in the final four, stage points no longer matter, making this weekend the perfect time to evaluate how the new stage-based format performed this season. Simply put, it was a huge hit.
NASCAR has seemingly made changes to its championship on an average of every other year since adopting the chase for the championship back in 2004. It has evolved from a straight-up points race with two different payout models to a win-and-you’re-in procedure over a decade-plus of the playoff era.
For the first time in a long time, NASCAR should be able to rest easy with its championship procedure. Do. Not. Touch. It. This works.
Take Sunday, for example. Hamlin entered the race 19 points behind Keselowski for the final transfer spot. Instead of spending the whole race hoping that Keselowski would falter before the checkered flag, Hamlin was able to race for points throughout the entirety of the event.
He had completely erased the deficit after two stages on the strength of a second and first place performance after each break, combined with Keselowski spending the near majority of the first half outside of the top 15.
This format encourages hard racing from flag-to-flag and that couldn’t have been displayed more on Sunday night.
This format also addressed one of the loudest complaints of the playoff era — that the regular season didn’t matter enough. Rightfully so, fans and drivers opined that a driver could simply win in March or April and just coast into the playoffs.
Denny Hamlin once said during the summer of his Daytona 500 triumph that he didn’t understand why he was racing in July since he had already won his way into the playoffs. Now, a victory gets you into the playoffs but it doesn’t get you into the championship race.
Martin Truex Jr. personified the relevancy of the regular season and the importance of scoring stage points and playoff points. Even without a win in the Round of 8, he advanced to Homestead after Texas two weeks ago on the muscle of his regular season and early playoff performance alone.
Sure, this format is a bit long in the tooth and can be complicated at first. But the easiest way to address this problem is to keep it for a couple of decades. Don’t touch it NASCAR because it’s the best, most exciting and fairest way to determine a champion while also implementing a playoff.
So how about some championship picks?
For Cup, this has seemed like Martin Truex Jr.’s season all along. I personally called them a team of destiny back in September. They even clinched a final four spot one race early due to their overwhelming success over the course of the entire season. But sometimes, fate denies destiny, especially in this NASCAR championship format.
In 2014, Jeff Gordon had the fastest cars all season and was denied a Championship 4 berth due to an incident with Brad Keselowski at Texas Motor Speedway. He dominated the Homestead finale anyway, bowing late to the championship contenders in a race many thought he should have won.
In 2016, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano were the betting favorites and crashed each other with 10 laps remaining. Jimmie Johnson won the race and title after spending all night outside of the top 10.
Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing has put their Ford Performance equipment all together during the second half of the playoffs. Homestead-Miami is his best track, even better than Phoenix, with the 2014 champion posting an average finish of second place at the Florida venue since 2014.
Xfinity pick: William Byron finishes off the championship season he was denied in Trucks last year
Trucks pick: Johnny Sauter goes back-to-back to cement his Truck Series legacy