Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott took the checkered flag at Martinsville on Sunday in the elimination race of the Round of 8 to become one of the four drivers who will advance to Phoenix Raceway this weekend with the opportunity to become the 2020 champion. Joining him will be Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
While those four drivers were being celebrated as the four drivers that advanced from what began as a 16-driver playoff field, much of the attention immediately after the race centered around the one driver that was considered a lock to advance to Phoenix and compete for the title.
Kevin Harvick put together the type of year that made him the heavy favorite to win it all once the 10-race playoff portion of the schedule began. His nine wins led the series and the Playoff bonus point totals that moved with him throughout the first three rounds was thought to be an insurance policy that would guarantee him racing for the title.
He entered Sunday’s race with a 42-point advantage which made him an odds on favorite to advance but all of that changed during the second stage when he made contact with Matt Kenseth which tore off the valve stem on his left-rear wheel forcing him to bring his Ford into the pits.
He came back on the track two laps down and fought the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap. Once on the lead lap it became a matter of passing enough cars to get the points he needed to advance. It came down to the last lap and he needed to pass Kyle Busch to earn the one point he needed. Unable to make the pass, on the last lap he tried to get into the side of Busch only to come up short and made contact near the rear corner panel forcing both cars to spin and with it his title hopes.
Harvick’s year was indeed one of domination but on Sunday Elliott was able to take advantage of the format NASCAR uses to crown its champion which rewards a driver for winning.
He led a career-best 236 laps for the win but it didn’t come easy as it came down to a pit stop and some quick thinking by his jackman. He was approaching his pit stall when his jackman went over the wall to soon which would have been an automatic penalty but even in the emotion of the moment, the crewman thought to go back to pit wall. NASCAR first announced that it would be penalizing the team but a look at the replay of the pit stop showed the crewman going back and not taking advantage of going over the wall to soon.
It wasn’t the type of pit stop that you would think would win a race but it was the kind of thinking on the crewman’s part that put Elliott in a position to advance to as one of the Championship 4. Elliott and Hamlin will both be racing for their first Cup Series Championship while teammates Keselowski and Logano will be looking for their second.
Logano will be entering the race at the right time as he has peaking after putting together a very strong Round of 8 races. He won the opening race of the Round at Kansas and finished third on Sunday.
It also doesn’t hurt his chances that he is the most recent winner at Phoenix. Hamlin finished 11th on Sunday and it continued a trend of finishes that has him advancing with very little momentum.
It was his third finish outside of the top-10 in the last four races and the sixth of the playoffs. He may also be feeling the pressure of knowing that he has been in the situation before and has not been able to get the deal down.
Keselowski will be going to Phoenix with a car that he thinks can win the race. He won at New Hampshire in August and Richmond in September with a Ford Mustang that he said after the race would be going to Phoenix.
Points will no longer matter when the green flag waves on Sunday at Phoenix. The highest finisher of the four driver earns the title and this will be one for the ages as 2020 has presented obstacles that other champions did not have to overcome.