Chase Elliott cruised to an impressive 6.577-second victory over Ryan Blaney Sunday in the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for the most clutch victory of the 24-year old’s young career – earning a position in next week’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 season finale.
Equally as dramatic was a failed last lap pass for position that has eliminated the regular season champion and nine-race winner Kevin Harvick from advancing to that final round. Harvick had to pass 2019 series champ Kyle Busch for one position – one point – to be able to advance to next week’s title race and instead the cars crashed after making contact. Harvick ended up 17th, eight points shy of a Playoff berth.
With his victory, the Hendrick Motorsports driver Elliott joins Team Penske’s Joey Logano, who advanced to the title race with a victory two weeks ago at Kansas. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, a seven-race winner, raced his way into the Championship 4 with an 11th-place finish at Martinsville and Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth Sunday, was the final driver to earn a championship opportunity.
“Just so proud," said Elliott, who was ranked sixth in the championship, 25 points below the cutoff line entering the race and was in a must-win position to earn his career first chance at NASCAR’s most prestigious championship.
“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 of five years. To perform when we don’t have a choice. And to do that tonight, I couldn’t ask for a better night. It’s just unreal.”
Elliott, who led a race best 236 of the 500 laps, took the lead for good with 43 laps remaining after passing Martin Truex Jr., who thought he had a loose wheel. Truex, who also needed to win to advance to the Championship 4 for the fourth straight year, nursed his car home in 22nd place instead.
After taking the lead, Elliott was able to drive away from the field and the three Team Penske teammates Blaney, Logano and Keselowski who finished second, third and fourth, respectively. Playoff drivers Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman – both needing a victory to advance – finished fifth and sixth, followed by Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top 10.
Ultimately eight points separated Keselowski from Harvick after the checkered flag, but it was a long, tense day of math and motivation for both former series champs. Had Harvick been able to pull off that last lap pass on Busch, he would be challenging for a title instead of Keselowski.
Harvick had a tire go down early in the race causing him to make a green flag pit stop and lose two laps putting him in catch-up mode on the half-mile Martinsville track - one of the most challenging venues on the circuit.
“For sure with the way we’ve run here in the past," Harvick said, acknowledging he and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team expected the Martinsville race to be a challenge.
“Everybody kept battling there and I tried to run into the door of the 18 as a last-ditch effort there and spun him out there so sorry to put him in the middle of trying to gain a point. Not a great three weeks. It didn’t go our way. We fought for everything we had and it just came up short."
While Hamlin, who will be making his second consecutive Championship 4 appearance, said as excited as he was to make the title round, he still felt badly that after a season like Harvick had, that he ultimately would not be championship-eligible. The two won 15 of the 35 races.
“I feel badly for Kevin, they probably deserve a little better than that, it’s just the format, I guess, it’s just three races and everything you do for eight innings doesn’t matter if you don’t have a great ninth inning,’’ Hamlin said.
The Season Finale 500 at the one-mile Phoenix Raceway takes place next Sunday at 3 p.m. ET (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).