Chase Elliott said to me on Friday that momentum may be bigger to carry the Round of 8 cutoff winner to a championship a week later in Phoenix. See, Kevin Harvick is the only NASCAR Cup Series driver to win the Round of 8 cutoff race and the championship a week later. That happened in the first year of this format’s inception in 2014.
Well, Elliott is going to try and become the second driver to ever do so next Sunday at the Phoenix Raceway.
Elliott, powered his No. 9 Chevrolet past Martin Truex Jr. for the top spot in Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway on Lap 456 and never looked back. The Hendrick Motorsports driver led the final 44 laps en route to his 10th career Cup win and stamps his name into the final round for the first time of his career.
“Hands down, I think, absolutely,” Elliott said on if this is the biggest win of his career so far.
Elliott, had made it to the Round of 8 in each of the last three years, but never had enough to turn that into a Championship performance. Now, he did.
The Georgia native dominated in leading a race-high 236 of 500 laps and carries with him two strong performances in cut off races this postseason to a cut off win-or-go-home scenario next weekend.
Elliott, was fast and aggressive from the drop of the green flag. He bumped his way to second early and then took over the lead for the first time on Lap 89. He overcame a near penalty on Lap 353 when his jack man was over the wall too soon, but came back to the pit wall to reset himself, then service the car. It dropped him from first to fourth, but better than the alternative.
Then, on his next stop on Lap 404, he had a slow stop for troubles on his left rear. He still made up for it and will race for a title.
He bested the Team Penske trio with Ryan Blaney finishing runner-up for the second straight time on the .526-mile short track. Joey Logano was third in his No. 22 Ford for his 12th top 10 in his last 14 starts on the season while Brad Keselowski made up for a speeding penalty on Lap 404 to finish fourth in his No. 2 Ford.
Kurt Busch rounded out the top five in his No. 1 Chevrolet for his first top five in Martinsville since his 2014 win, but he needed to win in order to race for a championship in the Arizona desert next Sunday.
Joining Busch as eliminated in the Round of 8 on Sunday was Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick.
Joining Elliott in the Championship 4 next Sunday will be Logano, Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
Pit Road Could Have Been Costly For Elliott/Keselowski
Chase Elliott could have lost out on a chance at a championship because of pit road. Same for Brad Keselowski. Elliott’s pit crew’s preparation saved him a championship chance.
The jackman of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet was over the wall way too soon on his Lap 353 stop. But, he recognized that quickly and ran back to the pit wall to reset himself. It was a rule they clearly practiced, because not many people knew that this rule even existed.
It saved him too.
Instead of being penalized for “over the wall too soon” and dropping to the rear on the ensuing restart, Elliott was able to keep his position.
Despite that, on their stop on Lap 404, they had troubles on the left rear. They’d still rise to the occasion and end up winning.
Keselowski, had similar stress at the end too. He was speeding on pit road on his Lap 404 stop. He went from third to 24th as a result. Instead of being solidly in, he was now battling Kevin Harvick, a guy with nine wins in 2020, for the final playoff spot to the Championship 4.
Keselowski, showed his strength and will and went from 24th to finish fourth in the end. He will race for a championship next Sunday in Phoenix because of that.
Penske Cars Strong Again
Team Penske didn’t win the first NASCAR Cup Series race back in June. They did finish 2-3-4 though. On Sunday, they didn’t win again. But, like the night race in June, they had a front row seat at the end.
Ryan Blaney finished second in his No. 12 Ford. It was his fifth top seven result in the last six races on the season and fourth straight top five in Martinsville. He’s also had five top fives in his last six starts there including a runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. in June and runner-up to Chase Elliott in November.
Joey Logano was third in his No. 22 Ford for his 12th top 10 in the last 15 races run on the season. He was fourth this past June.
Brad Keselowski rebounded from a pit road speeding penalty to go from 24th to fourth in the final 96 laps.
Now, Penske has two cars in the Championship 4 next Sunday.
Harvick Surprisingly Eliminated
This is exactly what NASCAR created the playoffs for in 2004. After Matt Kenseth won a championship after just a one win 2003, they scrapped a seasons worth of points and created a playoff like format.
This system has been tweaked a few times, but the most recent one in 2014 is the way we’re operating now. This is to create situations like these very moments like we saw in Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
I think everyone just assumed that Kevin Harvick would easily make his way to the Championship 4 in 2020. He had seven wins in the regular season and two wins in the first round for nine wins in the first 29 races. He had also accumulated 69 playoff points in the process to carry with him. With how the Round of 8 on was setup, the championship was his to lose.
He has been great on 1.5-mile tracks and Kansas-Texas were the first two races in the third round. Harvick, had won the last three Texas playoff races at that. Phoenix, a track that he’s won nine times at over the course of his career, was the championship race now.
He should win his second title right?
Instead, we were all wrong. In a typical 2020 moment, Harvick was eliminated from championship contention on Sunday at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
Game 7 moments, remember.
Harvick, entered Sunday’s Xfinity 500 42 points above the cutline. But, as I warned earlier this week, he wasn’t necessarily safe despite that advantage still. See, he had 17 points on Brad Keselowski for the last wildcard spot to the final round at Phoenix. But, Keselowski had nine straight top 10 finishes at Martinsville including eight of those in the top five.
Denny Hamlin was one spot ahead with three top five finishes in his last four Martinsville starts himself.
Harvick, had just two top five finishes in his last 16 starts on the Virginia paperclip. What happens if Harvick struggled and Hamlin and Keselowski scored a ton of stage points and earned top fives again?
Well, that’s what happened.
Hamlin, won the first stage and scored 18 stage points on Sunday. Keselowski, had 12 stage points. Harvick, scored none.
Then, if someone below the cutline wins, that could put Harvick behind Hamlin and Keselowski and now out of championship hopes.
That’s exactly what happened.
Chase Elliott won, putting him from 25 points down entering the weekend, to Championship 4 bound. Keselowski, overcame a pit road speeding penalty to finish fourth. Hamlin, faded to 11th, but just enough to best Harvick for the final spot.
Harvick, was one point out on the final lap and tried to put his bumper to Kyle Busch on the final corner, but wrecked them both. Championship hopes over.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished second in the first race this round at Kansas, got into the wall while leading at Texas and now just 17th in Martinsville.
That spells defeat, even for a driver of Harvick’s caliber. It ends a streak of four straight Championship 4 appearances for him and five in six tries prior to this year.
With seven wins and the clear cut dominate car all season, by him not making the final round sent shockwaves throughout the sport.
“They wanted a Game 7 moment but my only issue is you can’t ignore the first eight innings,” Hamlin said about Harvick not making it.
If we went on the format of 2003 and prior or even 2004-2013, Harvick wins a championship every time. Instead, the best he can do now is fifth in this format.
“This system is skewed toward entertainment,” said a disappointed Harvick.
He’s not wrong. This format is very difficult to win.
“Winning a championship today isn’t how Earnhardt or Petty did it,” Harvick told me before the playoffs even started. “I think it’s a much different style of winning a championship than what it used to be.
“When you look at the points standings from this year, you see why the playoffs were put into effect in trying to make sure that we had an intriguing 10 weeks of racing as we went toward the en dof the year.
“It’s very difficult to get yourself to the last race of the season and be one of those four cars and trying to be able to race for let alone win a championship.
“It’s very difficult to put yourself in that position.”
He was prophetic back in September.
Loose Wheel Costs Truex A Championship 4 Berth, JGR Struggles Again
Martin Truex Jr. was well on his way to his fourth straight Championship 4 appearance and fifth in the last six years. But, a loose wheel cost him any shot of that in the end of Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
Truex, led 122 of 500 laps in the race and was leading after the final restart, but his No. 19 Toyota started fading due to a bad vibration. He tried to hold on, but as he was sliding further and further back, it was evident that they needed to pit.
So, Truex brought his car down pit lane to concede and will miss a shot at the championship for the first time since 2016.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was one lap away from a win this past Wednesday night in Texas. His teammate Kyle Busch won but ran out of gas coming to his victory celebration. If that race went one more lap, Truex, not Busch, would have won and a Championship 4 berth was his.
Instead, he’s out. His 22nd place finish also ended his two race win streak on the Virginia paperclip too.
It was a rough time in Martinsville again for JGR as well. Truex won in June but they finished 19-20-24 too. On Sunday, Kyle Busch was spun by Kevin Harvick on the last lap and finished ninth. Denny Hamlin was 11th and Erik Jones 12th.
1-19-20-24 in June and 9-11-12-24 in November.
Championship 4 Favorites Out Before Final Round
Most seasons, you can just put Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr’s name in Sharpie for the Championship 4. I mean, coming into the 2020 season, Harvick had three straight final round appearances and five in the six year span of this new format which debuted in 2014. He had nine wins in 2020 already and was the regular season champion.
You could also have put Kyle Busch in it too. Busch, had five straight Championship 4 appearances. The only year that he didn’t make it was in 2014.
Martin Truex Jr. had three straight Championship 4 appearances and four in a five year span.
It was the “Big 3.”
Good thing it’s 2020 and we put nothing in permanent ink this year. None of the three will make it to Phoenix next Sunday for a shot at the championship. Busch, was eliminated in the second round with Harvick and Truex in the Round of 8.