After living through nearly all of a year that has taught us to expect the unexpected, we probably should’ve seen chaos hitting the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs too. The series took to Martinsville Speedway on Sunday in what was the second-to-last race of the 2020 season and final race of the Round of 8 as far as the postseason is concerned. With only one driver (Joey Logano) having clinched a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 coming into the race, three spots were still up for grabs.
With the stakes at an all-time high, Martinsville Speedway delivered a short track race of epic proportions Sunday afternoon. The 500 circuits around the half-mile track affectionately known as “The Half Mile of Mayhem” were action-packed from start to finish. Chase Elliott emerged victorious, but that was just one of several headlines to take away from the race.
Chase Elliott in Championship Form
Believe it or not, there was a path for Chase Elliott to advance to the Championship 4 on points at Martinsville, albeit a difficult one to navigate. Elliott entered the day 25 points below the cutline and had a lot of ground to make up, particularly when you considered the drivers he was chasing. But why worry about points and math when you can take away all doubt with a win?
Elliott and the No. 9 team brought it from the moment the green flag dropped. Elliott led 236 out of the 500 laps run. After overcoming a handful of slow pit stops, Elliott navigated his way back to the front and took the lead shortly after the final restart. The 9-car pulled away from any and all contenders, winning with an impressive 6.577-second margin over runner-up Ryan Blaney.
Full Team Effort
The betting odds and NASCAR analysts seemed to favor a winner coming from either the Joe Gibbs Racing or Penske Racing teams. While Elliott had to battle multiple cars from both teams throughout the race, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ultimately made its way to victory lane. It’s safe to say Elliott would not have gotten the job done without the hard work of his pit crew, with particular emphasis on a heads-up decision but the jackman.
As Elliott pulled in for a mid-race pitstop from the lead position, the jackman leaped over the wall and ran out into the stall to get in position. The problem was he left too soon, and fortunately for 9-team, he realized it. Rather than stick with it and risk drawing a penalty from NASCAR that would’ve forced Elliott to drop to the rear of the field on the ensuing restart, the jackman quickly retreated to the pit wall and reestablished before running around the car that had by then pulled into the stall. While it cost the 9-team several seconds on the pit-stop itself, the time paled in comparison to the situation Elliott would’ve been in had the team been assessed a penalty.
NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 is Set
Chase Elliott’s win got him into the chase for the championship at Phoenix, ensuring that he joined Joey Logano who won at Kansas in the first of the three Round of 8 races. However, there were still two other spots to be determined by points at Martinsville. Those two spots came down to the very last lap.
Brad Keselowski was able to surge through the field on the final green flag run of the game and wound up finishing fourth. This enabled him to claim the third ticket into the Championship 4 on points. Keselowski passed the other two drivers vying for the last two spots in that sequence as well, firmly taking care of business.
Denny Hamlin Hangs On
Said drivers were Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, owners of the most and second-most wins on the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Harvick led the series with 9 victories and 20 top-5 finishes on the season, while Hamlin wasn’t far behind with 7 wins and 17-top 5’s. Dubbed the “Big Two” throughout the year, many NASCAR fans and analysts alike couldn’t fathom a situation in which one of the two wouldn’t be racing for a championship at Phoenix in the final race of the year.
That situation came to reality on Sunday at Martinsville thanks to Elliott’s win and Keselowski’s excellent final surge through the field. Hamlin, who won the first stage of the race to boost his playoff points total, began to fade down the stretch. Perhaps the 11-car got a benefit from winding up running ahead of Erik Jones over the final 20 laps of the race.
While Jones has already been informed, he will not be running for Joe Gibbs Racing next season, he remained loyal to Hamlin in this instance. With every position on the racetrack worth a point, Jones never passed the 11 and even appeared to work as a blocker over the final few circuits as the 41-car of Cole Custer, Harvick’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, attempted to get by both JGR cars. At any rate, Hamlin was able to hang on and claim the final berth in the Championship 4.
Disappointment for Kevin Harvick
Falling short of the Championship 4 was more than a shocking playoff exit for Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 team. Harvick battled a poor-handling car early on in Sunday’s race at Martinsville and was both a lap down and marred in traffic well into the third stage of the race. Like they have all year though, the team continued to adjust the car and Harvick began to gain positions after earning the free pass on a caution to get back on the lead lap.
Unfortunately, Harvick’s car was just never good enough. He restarted ahead of Keselowski, but quickly was passed by the 2-car and could not keep pace with him as he picked his way through the field. Harvick slowly continued to gain track position. As Hamlin was losing spots, it suddenly became apparent that Harvick was now racing the No. 11 and not the 2.
Battling Until the Very End
Harvick gave it his best effort right down to the final lap, keeping fans on the edge of their seats. Entering turns 3 and 4 just one point below the cut line, Harvick dove low to the inside of Kyle Busch in a last-ditch effort to make the necessary pass to save his season. Both the 4 and 18 spun out as a result of Harvick making contact with the rear quarter panel, but it was Busch who managed to get righted around and cross the finish line to officially turn out the light on Harvick’s championship hopes.
A nine-win season of dominance suddenly seems very empty for Harvick and his No. 4 Stewart-Haas team. While Harvick does have one previous NASCAR Cup Series Championship on his resume (2014), anyone who follows the sport would tell you that he looked like a sure bet to add a second title this season with dominant performances all throughout the summer. It is truly an upset of upsets for Harvick to fall short of the Championship 4.