The NASCAR Cup Series‘ current playoff format has generated much debate since its introduction in 2014, and Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway will surely continue to see that controversy play out.
As Chase Elliott stormed off to win his fourth race of the season and clich a spot in the Championship Round at Phoenix, regular season champion Kevin Harvick found himself having to claw his way through the field before ultimately being eliminated.
The front row consisted of drivers below the cut line as Brad Keselowski started on the pole ahead of Martin Truex Jr. Garrett Smithley was sent to the rear as he was a late entry for the Spire Motorsports #77, and was ruled as a driver change.
Entering the race, Logano was the lone driver locked in to the Championship Round as the only playoff contender to win a Round of 8 race (the eliminated Kyle Busch won Texas). Harvick and Hamlin respectively held 42- and 27-point advantages over the cut-off line, while Keselowski was fourth with 25 points above. Below were Hendrick Motorsports team-mates Alex Bowman and Elliott in a tie at 25 points below, followed by Truex (–36). Kurt Busch required a win to advance after suffering an engine failure at Kansas.
Keselowski led the first four laps before Truex overtook him; the former would eventually start falling after bumping with Hamlin, who moved by along with Busch.
On lap 10, Michael McDowell began enduring a series of unfortunate events when he suffered a tyre rub on his left-rear due to contact with Jimmie Johnson. After five laps on the track with a smoking tyre, he hit pit road, only to suffer a commitment line violation. When he returned to the pits to serve his penalty, he was slapped with a speeding infraction.
Elliott moved into second and chased down Truex, who kept him at bay at the competition caution on lap 61. By the yellow, Truex led Elliott, Hamlin, Busch, and Keselowski. The leaders pitted with Truex beating Elliott off pit road, while Logano gained four spots to move up to third. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Corey LaJoie received speeding penalties.
The restart came on lap 69. Four laps later, Stewart-Haas Racing team-mates clashed when Aric Almirola clipped Clint Bowyer in turn one and turned him, with Austin Dillon forced to come to a stop to avoid hitting the sideways Bowyer. Another restart took place on lap 80 and Truex led before losing first to Elliott on lap 89.
On lap 104, Smithley slowed to a stop in turn four for the second race-related yellow of the day. While some leaders like Elliott stayed out, others like Hamlin and Logano pitted. Best friends Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace were respectively penalised for speeding and removing equipment, respectively.
The Elliott/Truex front row remained on lap 110. Three corners later, Bowyer got back at Almirola by sending him wide and causing the field to stack up, which Hamlin capitalised on to gain position before subsequently taking the lead on lap 114. A lap later, Joey Gase and Quin Houff got together in turn four, which sent the former spinning.
The final restart of the stage came with ten laps remaining. Hamlin ran unopposed to the green-checkered flag, while Elliott fell back on older tyres to Bowman and Keselowski.
Logano, Truex, Ky. Busch, William Byron, Ku. Busch, and Johnson rounded out the top ten. Harvick was the lone playoff driver not in range as he finished fourteenth.
The leaders pitted between stages as Elliott beat Hamlin off; Matt Kenseth was penalised for improper fueling. A contingent of cars led by the Busch brothers stayed out to inherit the top spots for the restart.
As Kurt and Kyle battled it out for the lead, Cole Custer hung behind in third before being passed by Elliott. On lap 147, a stack-up in midfield involving John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Suárez also collected Chris Buescher. The bump into Suárez’s rear caused Buescher’s radiator to blow up and the yellow flag to come out.
Busch stayed in the lead for the lap 159 restart, but lost it to Elliott four laps later. Meanwhile, Harvick found himself outside the top twenty before colliding with Kenseth on lap 183, suffering a flat left-rear tyre that dropped him further back. A caution for Brennan Poole‘s downed left-front tyre on lap 186 gave Harvick a brief reprieve as he took the wave-around (no free pass was issued), placing him one lap down.
As Elliott and Truex led the field to the green on lap 193, the race’s main story shifted to Harvick’s title hopes as the nine-time 2020 race winner was mired in the middle of the field with nose damage after hitting Kenseth and Nemechek in his attempt to get back into the picture. None of the dominoes appeared to line up for Harvick throughout the stage, including a caution on lap 214 for Ryan Preece that instead gave the free pass to Timmy Hill, who had just been lapped by Elliott when the yellow came out.
The restart took place on lap 222 with Hamlin leading, which placed Harvick back above the cut line by a point. However, Elliott retook the lead with 20 laps to go, dropping him back outside the top four.
By the end of the stage, Elliott was in front of Truex, Hamlin, Blaney, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Logano, Bowman, and Ryan Newman. Harvick was thirty-first.
Elliott beat the grid off pit road, while Hamlin had to pit again to ensure the lug nuts on the left front tyre were secured. The final stage commenced on lap 268 with Elliott leading Truex.
As the race crossed the 300-lap mark, lapped traffic began playing a factor in hindering Elliott’s momentum and allowing Truex to catch up. The pressure turned into an attempted pass on lap 317 that ultimately failed.
On lap 320, Johnson hit the wall and blew his left-rear tyre, forcing him to pit. Hill suffered the same fate on lap 352 to bring out the caution, with Kenseth receiving the free pass. During the yellow, Houff was penalised for speeding.
Elliott dodged a bullet when his jackman went over the wall too soon, but went back in time to avoid an infraction; NASCAR initially issued a penalty before rescinding it. NASCAR’s rulebook stipulates that a “crew member’s feet and/or pit equipment must not touch the pit road surface before the vehicle is one pit box away from its assigned pit box or the equivalent marked distance. Should a crew member’s feet prematurely touch the pit road surface prior to servicing the vehicle, said crew member(s) can re-establish their position abck to or behind service wall prior to servicing the vehicle to avoid a penalty.”
The race resumed on lap 359 with Logano and Truex leading. Blaney took the lead from his Team Penske team-mate on lap 369.
Meanwhile, Harvick battled with Wallace for the free pass, which saw contact between the latter and Stenhouse that enabled Harvick to take the required spot. This ultimately worked in Harvick’s favour when James Davison‘s stopped car on lap 400 brought out the caution, returning him to the lead lap.
Keselowski sped on pit road during his stop, resulting in a penalty. The green flag waved on lap 409 as Truex cleared Logano on the outside.
The final caution of the day came on lap 441 when Byron spun and hit the outside wall. LaJoie, who was out of fresh tyres, stayed out and assumed the lead ahead of Truex for the green flag. Truex finally cleared him exiting turn four as Elliott moved up to second; LaJoie later received a black flag for a restart violation.
Elliott cleared Truex for the lead with 43 laps to go and began building an advantage. Behind him, Truex’s championship hopes came to an end when he pitted for a loose wheel; he would finish twenty-second. Meanwhile, Harvick, Keselowski, and Hamlin scrambled for the final two playoff spots, with as little as three points separating them at one point.
Facing little opposition, Elliott’s lead ballooned to over 4.5 seconds by lap 480 and he would go on to score his fourth win of the season and punch his ticket to the final round for the first time in his career.
“Biggest win ever for us. Just so proud to be able to be backed into a corner like that and have to win tonight,” Elliott said in his post-race interview with NBC. “I feel like that’s what we’ve been missing these past four, five years, to perform when we don’t have a choice. To do that tonight was, couldn’t ask for a better night. It’s unreal.”
Keselowski took fourth to claim the third spot in the Championship Four. Harvick, desperately seeking the last slot over Hamlin, attempted a divebomb move on Ky. Busch in the final turn, but it only resulted in the two spinning. While Harvick remained backwards, Busch simply drove off as Hamlin escaped with the fourth and final seed.
“I tried to run into the door of the #18, it was a last-ditch effort there and spun him out, so sorry to put him in the middle of trying to gain a point,” Harvick said.
Although Harvick led all drivers in wins (nine) and top tens (twenty-sixth), as well as being the only driver to finish all thirty-five races, a sixteenth-place run at Texas placed him in a more precarious position that ultimately led to his elimination. Had the season-long points format been implemented (and assuming the same finishing results; it is accepted that drivers would race differently in other points systems), Harvick would have mathematically clinched the title two races early at Texas.
He continued in his interview, “These championships aren’t like when (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt used to win them. You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race, and it came down to one race for us tonight. We came up short.”