"Hey guys," Kyle Larson said moments after taking the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway's ROVAL. "I did not see us winning."
Neither did anyone 35 laps into Sunday's race.
And yet, Larson's team triumphed through adversity again, their calling card in a tough luck postseason for Hendrick Motorsports. His No. 5 started having electrical problems during the second stage of the Bank of America ROVAL 400, forcing an extra stop that wiped out track position. This year's title favorite was suddenly facing a playoff TKO.
"Had a lot of different emotions throughout the middle portions of that race," he said. "Thinking that this is so depressing and sad and crazy that I'm going to lose my shot at a championship because of an alternator issue."
Moments later, reigning champion Chase Elliott found himself on the wrong side of payback from Kevin Harvick. The rear of the No. 9 crumpled into pieces, forcing an extended repair that left him in danger and a car owner exasperated over it all.
"I was ready to go home," Rick Hendrick admitted. "I mean, it was time to get the helicopter and get out of here. Just hard to have a year like we've had, then it comes to crunch time, [we] have issues."
It took 30-some laps and a debris caution from his own bumper for Elliott to work back through the field. In the meantime, Larson was methodically moving up, smart strategy by crew chief Cliff Daniels helping gain chunks of track position back during longer green-flag runs.
"Larson told me he was amped up," Daniels said. "His hand was shaking on the wheel he was so excited for the last few restarts."
The old Larson would have made a mistake, like this 2018 brain fade into the tire barrier that cost him a ROVAL win. This time, he let everyone else crumble around him, including championship rival Denny Hamlin whose poor restart gave Larson the lead for good on lap 102.
It was cruise control the rest of the way, Larson becoming the first NASCAR driver in history to win three road course races in a season. His season-best seventh victory of the year took him right back to the top of the mountain, starting the Round of 8 with a record 65 bonus points.
Elliott, the former king of this track type, fought tooth-and-nail behind him, charging up to 12th with a car better suited for the Demolition Derby than a day at the races.
"Our team did a great job of putting the car back together and that really was the bottom line," Elliott said. "Super excited about that and excited about three more weeks and another opportunity to win a championship."
Harvick wound up on the outside looking in, crashing under pressure with Elliott's No. 9 breathing down his neck in the closing laps. Making clear their earlier contact was intentional, payback for Bristol Motor Speedway last month, the move backfired. Harvick went on to miss the Round of 8 for the first time since the current playoff format began in 2014.
By the end of the day, momentum moved back into the Hendrick camp. The Larson-Elliott duo advanced as the lone representatives for this four-car team, who watched Alex Bowman and William Byron get eliminated Sunday after both young men entered the race in win-or-bust mode. Each cheered on their counterparts as they set a baseline for how to fight back.
"The kid is super-human," Bowman said of Larson's comeback. "It's cool to see. I'm really happy for Kyle."
Green: Cliff Daniels
Need I remind you this crew chief had 51 races and zero Cup victories on his resume before pairing with Larson? The execution in fixing the voltage issue was pitch perfect, as was Daniels' calm explanation to his driver. The way these two understand each other in crisis has led to exceptional trust and a superstar pairing.
Yellow: Ryan Blaney
Blaney starts the Round of 8 as the 4th and final driver in position to make the championship race. Can he hold on? While a ninth at the ROVAL was respectable, his six-race playoff run so far is a mixed bag: no wins, two top-5 finishes and a position differential of -37.
Red: Kevin Harvick
Who knows what happens from here with the Elliott-Harvick brouhaha? Six years ago, another angry veteran in Matt Kenseth just would not stop until the driver he felt ruined his year, Joey Logano, got taken out in an ugly wreck at Martinsville. You could easily see the 45-year-old Harvick doing the same.
Hendrick was vocal Sunday that NASCAR should step in between the two. Either way, Harvick didn't get the desired result: it was he, not Elliott, getting towed from the track on a wrecker.
Speeding Ticket: Chase Elliott's bumper
Let's not take anything away from Elliott and the No. 9 team. The way they fought and rebuilt that race car was a stroke of brilliance.
That said, there was just one small issue: a bad tape job on the bumper. That giant piece of debris flying off the car forced a late-race caution that changed the complexion of the race. Should a team be penalized when pieces of metal like that come flying off their car? Especially when it was dragging for several minutes? Emotions shouldn't trump rules as NASCAR had ample opportunity to throw a black flag and have the No. 9 team fix the safety hazard.
At least one other driver agrees.
The Harvick-Elliott squabble will overshadow another late-race tangle, this one between Tyler Reddick and Byron. The No. 8 tapped the No. 24 a little too hard entering the backstretch chicane, dropping Byron to 11th as he slid into the wall.
After the race, the two drivers gave their sides of the story. Neither one seemed to walk away satisfied.
"There was just a lack of awareness there," Byron said later. "I feel like if the roles were reversed, I would be aware."