Chase Elliott in title round with victory at Martinsville; Kevin Harvick eliminated
Chase Elliott advanced to the championship round in the NASCAR Cup Series with an emphatic victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Kevin Harvick stunningly was eliminated from the playoffs.
Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin joined Elliott and Joey Logano in the Championship 4 in a nail-biting points finish on the 0.526-mile oval.
Elliott finished 6.222 seconds ahead of Ryan Blaney for his fourth victory of the season, putting a Chevrolet in the championship round for the first time in four years. The title race will be held Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
“Biggest win ever for us,” Elliott told NBC Sports reporter Dave Burns after leading 236 of 500 laps in his 10th career victory and first at Martinsville. “Just so proud. To be able to be backed in the corner like that and have to win tonight. That’s what we’ve been missing these past four to five years -- to perform when we don’t have a choice.
RESULTS, POINTS: Full stats package from Martinsville
“To do that tonight, I couldn’t ask for a better night. It’s unreal. Going to Phoenix, shot to win a championship, a beautiful blue Napa Camaro headed out there with a shot to win a title. What more could you ask for?”
Keselowski, who finished fourth, and Hamlin, who hung on for 11th, were one point apart in standings to earn the final two berths in the championship round. Harvick finished eight points out of the last transfer spot in 17th after he spun while desperately trying to knock Kyle Busch aside on the final lap.
“Tried to run into the door of (Busch) as a last-ditch effort there and spun him out, so sorry to put him in the middle of trying to gain a point,” Harvick told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “Just not a great three weeks. Didn’t go out way. We fought for everything we had and just came up short.”
Martin Truex Jr., who had won the past two races at Martinsville and led 129 laps Sunday, had to pit for a loose wheel while running second with 30 laps to go, ending his title bid. Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch also were eliminated from championship eligibility in the Nov. 8 finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Aside from Logano, who locked in with a victory at Kansas two weeks ago, all the remaining championship contenders encountered or narrowly averted major problems.
Elliott’s No. 9 team struggled on pit stops and nearly was tagged with a pit penalty on Lap 353 when his jack man jumped the wall too early (he repositioned himself before lifting the car, and NASCAR rescinded the punishment by rule).
#NASCAR .. on 9 issue— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) November 1, 2020
10.9.8.g in Rule Book: ... Should a crew member's feet prematurely touch the pit road surface prior to serving the vehicle, said crew member(s) can re-establish their position back to or behind service wall prior to serving the vehicle to avoid a penalty.
With the handling fading on his No. 11 Toyota under the lights, Hamlin fell deep in traffic after needing an extra pit stop after his team dropped the jack too soon.
And Keselowski rebounded from a speeding penalty on his last stop (“I didn’t even think it was possible to speed there, and I was wrong,” Keselowski told Burns).
But Harvick suffered the biggest setback Sunday and was unable to recover, missing the title round for the first time since 2016.
“I feel bad for Kevin,” Hamlin told Snider. “They probably deserve a little better than that. It’s just the format, I guess. Three races, and everything you can do for eight innings doesn’t matter if you don’t have a great ninth inning. It’s tough to see. I really wish we were going to race those guys, but it’ll be a tough battle with those other three we have to race.”
The regular-season champion and No. 1 seed entering the playoffs, Harvick had amassed 67 playoffs points and a series-high nine victories as seemingly a championship round lock entering the Round of 8.
In the third-round opener at Kansas Speedway, he finished second to Joey Logano, putting him a comfortable 41 points above the cutline. In the rain-delayed race at Texas Motor Speedway, Harvick started from the pole position but hit the wall early and finished 16th.
He still brought a 42-point cushion into Martinsville, where his lone victory came in 2011. After starting sixth, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver began struggling immediately with the handling in his No. 4 Ford.
Harvick was running outside the top 20 on Lap 180 when he collided with Matt Kenseth. The contact cut the left-rear tire on Harvick’s car, necessitating a pit stop under green that dropped him two laps down.
He got a lap back during a caution five laps later through a wavearound, but lack of speed and fortune left Harvick trapped off the lead lap for more than 200 laps.
Harvick finally got back on the lead lap as the free-pass car when the caution flew on Lap 401 for the stalled Ford of James Davison.
Over the final 100 laps, Harvick climbed from 21st to the edge of the top 10 and flirted with the transfer spot to Phoenix as Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford restarted just behind Harvick with 91 laps to go.
But Keselowski was able to gain 18 spots over the final two green-flag runs, and Hamiln was able to hang onto enough points to stay ahead.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin
STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Blaney finished second in both races at Martinsville. ... With a third at Martinsville, Joey Logano has top-three finishes in three of the past four races this season heading into his fourth championship round appearance. ... By finishing fifth, Kurt Busch earned his seventh top-five finish, the most for the Chip Ganassi Racing drivers since 2016.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: In likely his final start at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson finished 30th after a pit speeding penalty at the track where had nine victories.
NOTABLE: Elliott became the third driver in seven Round of 8 cutoff races to win from below the cut line and make the Championship 4 ... This was the 25th victory at Martinsville for Hendrick Motorsports, most among Cup teams. ... After Toyota failed to put an entry in the championship round of the truck and Xfinity races, Hamlin ensured the manufacturer would be represented in the Cup title race.
NEXT: The championship will be decided in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC; prerace show will begin at 1:30 p.m. ET, NBC)