Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin advance to title race via points
MARTINSVILLE, VA. – For the first time in his career, Chase Elliott will compete for a NASCAR Cup Series championship next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
After leading a race-high 236 laps, winning an appeal on what would have been a devastating late race penalty, and wrestling the lead back on the final restart from another man who needed a win to advance, Elliott put all the pieces together to take the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“This is the biggest win ever for us,” Elliott said after taking the checkered flag. “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 choice.
“To do that tonight, we couldn’t ask for a better night. This is unreal… What more could you ask for?”
Elliott came into the fight on Sunday down, but far from out. Points were still in play, but a win would be the only guarantee to advancing to the title fight. It’s been a career season so far for driver 9, and he’ll get to get the chance to cap it off with a championship at Phoenix Raceway.
“I’m just at a bit of a loss for words. Like I said, this is the piece we’ve been missing. I feel like we’ve had the group to do this. We just have to go make it happen and we did tonight.”
CHAAAAAAASEEEEEE! 🔥— Martinsville Speedway (@MartinsvilleSwy) November 1, 2020
BURN. IT. DOWN. pic.twitter.com/mR9iATmUH4
The final cutoff at the shortest track
Only Joey Logano held a ticket to the title race coming into the penultimate race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. The remaining three spots would have to be decided after 500 laps around the paperclip in Southern Virginia. Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski had them, but Elliott, Alex Bowman, Martin Truex, Jr., and Kurt Busch were ready to fight for it.
Keselowski started on the pole position, thanks to the formula consisting of points position, finishing position, and a best lap from the previous week. Keselowski brought the field to the green, but after only four laps, Truex, Jr. had taken control. Truex, Jr. led through the first pair of cautions, but on lap 89, Elliott took control for the first time.
Tires were in play, and at the end of the first stage, Hamlin took advantage while Elliott and Truex, Jr. expected a different outcome by both staying out. Hamlin took control with just under 20 laps to go in the stage, and pulled away to collect an important 10 points towards making the Championship 4 battle.
In the second stage, the Busch brothers led the field back to the green. Kyle Busch had the advantage on the restart, but Kurt Busch, needing a win to advance, fought hard on the outside and took control at lap 140. After a caution to clean up fluid on the track, Elliott was able to power back to the lead a few laps after the restart.
Another caution with just over 30 laps to go in the second stage split the consensus on pit strategy once again. This time, Hamlin opted to stay out, and many more followed suit. Elliott took the tires, and had to restart in 14th. The tires, once again, proved to be the winning strategy, as Elliott took back control and went on to win the second stage.
The third and final stage would separate the players from the contenders in the most important part of the race. Kevin Harvick spent the good portion of the second stage a lap behind the leaders after a flat tire forced the No. 4 to pit road. Harvick finally got his lap back with 160 laps to go, and the fight was on for who would make it in on points.
Assuming that Elliott or Truex, Jr. would win their way in, having been the two most dominant cars all day, it would be a toss up between Harvick, Hamlin, and Keselowski for the final two spots. Harvick, now back on the lead lap, had to hustle to make it up, while both Hamlin and Keselowski were sitting pretty.
They were sitting pretty until they weren’t though. Keselowski sped on pit road with just under 100 laps to go, while Hamlin believes he may have gotten a bad set of tires on the last stop with just under 60 to go.
Hamlin began working his way backward, while Keselowski was able to slice his way through. Harvick was having a tougher time, not able to get the spots as easily. With just under five laps to go, Keselowski and Hamlin were tied, and Harvick was one point back. If Harvick could pass Kyle Busch ahead of him, he would be able to tie it up three ways, and Hamlin would be the odd man out.
As Elliott crossed the line to capture the win, Harvick closed in on the No. 18’s rear bumper. As the two exited Turn 4, Harvick turned right and caught Busch’s left rear, both spinning as they were coming to the line. Busch recovered and maintained the position, while Harvick backed it into the pit wall, his chances gone with a 17th place result.
Logano, Elliott, Keselowski, and Hamlin – the four that remain
In by wins, Logano having won at Kansas and Elliott with the walk off at Martinsville, they will be joined by Hamlin and Keselowski in the fight for the title at Phoenix Raceway on November 8th.
The 2020 regular season champion, Harvick, as well as Truex, Jr., Bowman, and Kurt Busch, were eliminated at the end of the night at Martinsville.
Both Elliott and Hamlin are looking to capture their first career Cup Series championships, while the Team Penske duo of Logano and Keselowski will be trying for their seconds.
All three of the NASCAR National Series will conclude their 2020 seasons next week. The NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series title will come down to Grant Enfinger, Brett Moffitt, Sheldon Creed, and Zane Smith. The NASCAR XFINITY Series championship will be between Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier, and Justin Haley.
Check out the photo gallery from the press box! All photos by Justin Melillo / TRE.
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