Chase Elliott entered NASCAR’s final four for the first time with a dominant win at Martinsville Speedway while Kevin Harvick was eliminated.
Forced into a must-win scenario, Chase Elliott earned the biggest victory of his NASCAR Cup Series career, while the circuit’s regular season champion saw his luck run out.
Elliott and the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team dominated the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the penultimate race of the 2020 season that set up the Cup Series’ quartet of drivers that will compete for a championship at Phoenix Raceway next weekend. The two-time defending winner of the Cup Series’ Most Popular Driver Award advanced to the final four for the first time in his career. He joins Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin in the title-contending group, while Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion and winner of nine races in 2020, was eliminated.
“Obviously, (for) me personally, it’s a huge deal. (I’ve) ever been in this position before. That’s exciting,” Elliott said after the race. “But for everybody that is a part of our organization, obviously NAPA is a huge partner, super pumped to have them on the car tonight, a big moment. They’ve been a big piece of my career. Hendrick Motorsport, everyone that lays a hand on our cars. It’s a big deal for everyone to have a chance to win a championship.”
The NASCAR Cup Series’ ten-race playoff system was introduced in 2004, with elimination rounds arriving a decade later. This adjust system invites 16 drivers with four eliminated after every three races, leading to four drivers battling for a championship in the 36th and final race of the season. Drivers can earn automatic advancement to the next immediate round with a win, much like Joey Logano did at Kansas Speedway earlier this month.
Elliott entered Sunday’s event 25 points outside the top four, more or less necessitating a win for the No. 9. He started the race in eighth but worked his way to the lead for the first time at lap 89 of 500. His Chevrolet would go on to lead 236 of 500 laps, including the final 44 when he passed two-time defending Martinsville winner Martin Truex Jr., who likewise needed to win to advance.
His victorious moment, the 10th win of his Cup Series career, nearly never came. When debris from Timmy Hill’s damaged car brought out the yellow flag at lap 352, Elliott not only endured a slow pit stop that not only relegated him to fourth, but was nearly forced to go to the rear of the field when it appeared one of his pit crew members jumped over the wall too early, warranting a penalty from NASCAR. Elliott’s No. 9 team appeared with officials, noting that the crewman made it back to safety before Elliott’s car arrived. Officials agreed upon review and rescinded the penalty.
“This is a moment that we haven’t experienced together. I said that a few times tonight, Elliott said of his team. “You just don’t know those emotions until you go through it, are able to experience it. We obviously all put a lot of effort in to try to do our jobs to the best of our ability.”
“It absolutely is a team sport. We can’t do it on our own. I can’t do it by myself. No one on our team can do it alone. We recognize that. Feel like we have a great group, a group that’s capable of winning. I thought we showed that and proved that tonightÂ I think we can have a great shot next week.”
The pass for the lead came just at the right time, as he sped away from the rest of a field that erupted in clean chaos with other playoff contenders racing for points. Truex was later eliminated when he fell back due to a loose wheel, but other contenders needed to race their way into the title through points with Elliott racing away and non-playoff driver Kyle Busch winning the prior event at Texas.
The most prominent case was Harvick, who won nine races and took home the regular season title. He finished in the runner-up spot behind Logano at Kansas but struggled to a 16th-place posting at Texas last week. With Elliott and Truex, a pair of drivers behind him that were dominating the race (the two uniting to lead 375 of 500 laps), Harvick was forced into a desperate situation of his own. The feeling only increased when he lost a tire on lap 180 and the ensuing repairs put him two laps down. His No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was forced to scratch and claw its way back to the lead lap, finally earning the caution-induced free pass back to the lead lap granted to the first car lap down when the stalled car of James Davison bringing out the yellow flag.
Harvick was then embroiled in a three-way battle for two spots with Hamlin and Keselowski, the latter of whom started from the rear of the field after speeding during the Davison caution. But, like Elliott, he recovered from pit road miscues to reach fourth place and secure his spot alongside Logano and Elliott. With Hamling trying to hold off teammate Erik Jones in holding the 11th position, Harvick needed a mere point to reach the playoffs, owning the tiebreaker over Hamlin through wins. In desperation, Hamlin bumped Hamlin’s teammate Kyle Busch, the car just ahead of him, out the way to earn one final position, but wound up wrecking himself in the process. The endeavor relegated Harvick to the 17th spot, eliminating the 2014 Series champion.
Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman respectively finished fifth and sixth, but were likewise eliminated from contention through points. Ryan Blaney finished in the runner-up spot, while Logano came back third.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series ends next weekend at Phoenix Raceway next Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). This is the first time that the season finale comes to Phoenix, after 18 years at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
- Elliott will appear in the championship four for the first time in his career. Keselowski and Logano are each looking for their second championship, having won the Cup Series title in 2012 and 2018. Hamlin is seeking his first Cup title, having finished in the top five on five occasions (including a fourth-place posting last season).
- Elliott is the first Chevrolet representative in the championship four since teammate Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title
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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags