For the first time in his career, Chase Elliott is headed to the Championship 4. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver led a race-high 236 laps and won the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville to secure his shot at the title next week at Phoenix.
"Oh my gosh. This is the biggest win ever for us," Elliott said following his first career win at Martinsville. "I'm just so proud to be able to be backed into a corner like that and have to win tonight. I feel like that's what we've been missing these past four or five years and perform when we don't have a chance. And to do that tonight; we couldn't ask for a better night. This is unreal."
Elliott joins Joey Logano as drivers to win their way into the Championship 4 this season, while Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski both advanced on points. Regular season champion Kevin Harvick shockingly fell short after a disappointing showing on Sunday, partly due to a flat tire suffered in Stage 2.
Harvick was within a point of Hamlin and Keselowski on the final lap and needed to pass Kyle Busch in order to advance. The No. 4 then spun out after contact with the No. 18 heading to the start-finish line, sealing his fate.
"It was just a move I had to try knowing that I needed one point," Harvick said of his last lap crash. "I needed to hit him square in the door but at that point I was too late and wound up hitting him in the back. It was just a Hail Mary that didn't work out."
Harvick was considered a lock to make it to Phoenix and was the championship favorite entering the race at William Hill Sportsbook. He entered the round with the most points, but ultimately was knocked out with Elliott winning.
"We had a great year," Harvick said in reference to not winning the title this season. "They aren't won the same way that Earnhardt and Petty did. You have to put together a few weeks and we didn't put together these last few weeks like we needed to and just came up short."
Harvick's wasn't the only team that faced adversity throughout the race. Hamlin was also in danger of falling out of the playoffs despite winning seven races this season. The No. 11 team had to pit twice to tighten lug nuts late in the race after winning the first stage, but ultimately was able to work his way enough towards the front to secure his spot.
"We wanted to create a Game 7 moment, so this is what you get," Hamlin said after giving praise to the now-eliminated No. 4 team. "If you have a bad race or two in a three-race series, you're out."
Ironically it was the three drivers with the most wins in the series who were in the biggest danger of being eliminated on Sunday. Keselowski, who has four races wins this season, nearly saw his season come to an end after he was caught speeding on pit road.
Another major penalty that almost impacted the result of the race actually was assessed to the eventual winner. Elliott was making a pit stop in the Final Stage and NASCAR ordered the No. 9 team to the rear for a crew member over the wall too soon. The team quickly appealed the penalty and saw it rescinded. NASCAR explained the decision to media members, saying that the crew member in question "re-established his position back to the service wall prior to servicing the penalty."
"TJ (Elliott's jackman), made a mistake and he was heads up to go back and fix it," Elliott said. "If he hadn't have done that I don't think we would have been able to win."
Elliott took the lead from Martin Truex Jr, who led 129 laps, with less than 50 laps to go. Shortly after that reported a loose wheel. He kept the car on track for about a dozen more laps before ultimately having to pit. That put him multiple laps down and ended his chances of making the Championship 4.
"I think we should be the one in victory lane," Truex said after the race, referring to his car as perfect. "I feel in my heart that we had it dialed in and it was gonna be a hell of a race."
Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman finished fifth and sixth respectively, but ultimately were not able to advance. Bowman had an outside chance of clinching on points entering the race while Busch was in a must-win situation.
"You're an underdog when you go in ranked eighth of eight," said Busch, who suffered an engine problem at Martinsville before concluding the Round of 8 with two top 10s. "Those are great quality finishes, but you can't rely on those in the playoffs against the best of the best. Right now, Harvick's not in. That just shows you how tough this competition is."
The first driver to punch his ticket to the Championship 4 was Logano. Despite having nothing to race for but a win, he still managed to finish the race third.
"We're the favorites to win this thing," Logano said. "That's how it is in my mind and I said it a couple weeks ago. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."
William Hill Sportsbook is expected to release odds for the Championship 4 on Monday.