It was all or nothing Sunday for Chase Elliott at Martinsville Speedway in the penultimate NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race, Xfinity 500. In a “must-win” situation to advance to next weekend’s Championship 4 to battle for the Cup title, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro rooted his way to the lead with 44 laps remaining and pulled away for a 6.577-second victory.
While Elliott celebrated, as well as third-place finisher Joey Logano who had already secured his spot in Championship 4 with his victory at Kansas two weeks ago, the intensity for the remaining two Playoff spots was ratcheted into overdrive in the final nail-biting laps as all eyes were on Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. When the checkered flag fell, it was Harvick, who entered the race with what many thought was a comfortable 42 points above the Playoff cutline, left on the outside looking in, falling short by just eight points.
As a result, the NASCAR Cup Series Championship will be determined on Sunday, Nov. 6, at Phoenix Raceway between Elliott (his first-ever Championship 4), Logano, Hamlin and Keselowski. It will be Elliott’s first attempt at the premier series title. Hamlin will be vying for his first championship while Logano and Keselowski look for their second.
For Elliott, he, along with teammate Alex Bowman, entered Martinsville those 42 points behind Harvick. But, from the outset, he moved to the front quickly, vaulting to the lead on lap 89 after starting eighth. He led a race-high 236 laps on five occasions. NASCAR’s most popular driver took the lead just after the final restart when he slipped under the inside of Corey Lajoie and Martin Truex, Jr. – three-wide – off turn four.
“Oh, my gosh. This is the biggest win ever for us,” said a jubilant Elliott who picked up his first Martinsville triumph, and in the process his first Martinsville Grandfather Clock that goes to each Martinsville winner. “I’m just so proud to be able to be backed into a corner like that and have to win tonight. I feel like that’s what we’ve been missing these past four or five years and perform when we don’t have a choice. And, to do that tonight; we couldn’t ask for a better night. This is unreal. Thanks to the fans for coming out. They’re here and I love to see it! I’ve just got to catch my breath. This is just unbelievable. We’re going to Phoenix with a shot to win a championship and have a beautiful blue NAPA Camaro headed out there with a shot to win a title. What more could you ask for?”
NASCAR’s Most Popular driver held off Ryan Blaney, followed by Logano, Keselowski fourth and Kurt Busch. Sixth went to Alex Bowman, followed by Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch and Matt DiBenedetto. native Hamlin wound up 11th.
With just under 100 laps to go, Harvick, who had struggled all day running outside of the top 20 and then fell two laps behind after cutting down a tire before the halfway point, got back on the lead lap as a result of a caution flag. Meanwhile, during the same yellow period, Keselowski, who had been a constant top-five driver, was caught speeding on pit road and was penalized to start at the end of the field. Harvick restarted 23rd while Keselowski was 24th.
Keselowski methodically surged to the front, and it became a mathematical game in the final laps as Hamlin began dropping spots. At the white flag, Hamlin was up one point over Keselowski who had one point over Harvick, who was running 10th and owned the tiebreaker with Keselowski if they wound up with the same amount of points. Trying to pass Kyle Busch coming off turn four coming to the line, Harvick made one last-ditch effort, hitting Busch and spinning them both. Harvick wound up against the inside wall, his hopes dashed with a 17th place effort.
“We just weren’t good and everybody on our Mobil 1 Ford team just kept battling to make it better and gave ourselves a shot there at the end,” said Harvick, who has won nine races thus far in 2020. “I tried to drive into the door of the 18 (Kyle Busch) to get that last point to make it and spun him out. I don’t usually drive like that, but you’re trying to make it to the Championship 4 and doing everything you can. Just came up short. Just not the night we needed.”
“I thought I was part race car driver part mathematician,” said Keselowski. “There was nothing I could do other than just pass as many cars as I could and look forward. The last two runs, I don’t know if we were the best car, but we were close to it. It was just frustrating because that pit road penalty I did not see it coming, to be honest with you.”
Hamlin, who entered the race in what many also thought was a comfortable 27 points above the cutline, was able to hold off his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones in the waning laps to secure his championship spot.
“I put myself in an interesting spot where the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was going for it a little bit and we were very fortunate he didn’t go for it any further than he did,” said the Hamlin, a Virginia native who won Stage 1. “We did just enough. That’s what we needed to do – is do enough to make it to Phoenix and give ourselves a shot at the championship. This FedEx team definitely deserves to be in the top four and glad that we are able to give it a shot next week.”
Before the final caution, Truex, Jr. had the lead, and then came out ahead of Elliott, only to have to pit laps later with a loose wheel. He, too, had to win in order to advance.
“That last run there before the final pit stop, the thing was on rails and it was perfect and we were driving away,” said the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota who wound up 22nd after leading for 129 laps. “I felt really good about it. Then we pitted and had a pretty good pit stop. Came out with the lead and right away I knew something was wrong. I was really, really tight and had a vibration. The 9 (Chase Elliott) car passed us and we started dropping and had to pit for a loose wheel. Unfortunate. I think we should be the one in victory lane right now, but you have to do it all. Just a little mistake there.”
In addition to Harvick and Truex, Jr., Bowman and Kurt Busch failed to advance to the Championship 4. Average speed of the race was 71.581 mph. There were 12 cautions for 83 laps. The race featured 20 lead changes among 10 drivers.
Elliott, who won Stage 2, notched his 10th career triumph. If Elliott can take home the championship next weekend in Phoenix, it would mark the third father-son duo to be NASCAR Cup Series champions. Elliott’s father, Bill, took home the title in 1988. They could join Lee and Richard Petty along with Ned and Dale Jarrett.
The NASCAR Cup Series Championship will be decided at one-mile Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 8 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Chase Elliott does a burnout after winning the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway. (Contributed photo)