Chase Elliott cruised to victory by 6.5 seconds over Ryan Blaney in the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. The win was Elliott's fourth of 2020 and the 10th of his career. The Dawsonville, GA native also became a first-time Martinsville winner and punched his ticket to vie for the Cup Series championship next Sunday. This is the first time in Elliott's career that he advanced to the championship race.
(This is) the biggest win ever for us," said the son of Hall-of-Fame driver Bill Elliott, with tears streaming down his face, during his post-race interview. "To be backed in the corner like that and have to win...to perform when we didn't have a choice."
Elliott entered the afternoon 25 points below the cutline, which almost assuredly put him in a must-win situation to advance. The 24-year-old became the third driver from Hendrick Motorsports to advance to the championship race, under NASCAR's current playoff format, joining Jeff Gordon (2015) and Jimmie Johnson (2016).
"I feel like we have the group to do this," Elliott said. "We just have to make it happen."
Joey Logano, who had already claimed a spot in the championship four by winning two weeks ago, finished third, Brad Keselowski fourth, and Kurt Busch fifth. Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top 10. Denny Hamlin, who finished 11th, won Stage One while Elliott claimed Stage Two.
Jimmie Johnson finished 30th, five laps down, in his final Martinsville start on Sunday. The seven-time champion started 27th and drove into the top 10 before a flat left-rear tire forced him to pit on lap 319, from which he never recovered.
Johnson went to victory lane nine times at the track known as the "paper clip", which ties for third all-time with Hall-of-Famer, and former teammate, Jeff Gordon. The seven-time champion's last win at Martinsville came in 2016.
Johnson will make his final NASCAR start next Sunday.
Elliott, who led a race-high 219 laps, swapped the lead with fellow playoff driver Martin Truex Jr, who led 129 laps, for much of the 500-mile event. But after pitting for a loose wheel with 39 laps to go, the New Jersey native, who had won the last two Martinsville races, ended up finishing 22nd, one lap down. Due to being too far below the cutoff line, his chances of being a part of the championship four were over.
"Dang it guys, I'm sorry," a dejected Truex said over the radio shortly before coming down pit road.
With three laps to go, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick were in a three-way tie for the final two spots to advance to the championship race. The NBC broadcast showed Keselowski and Hamlin in possession of those final two spots by one point over Harvick. This meant Harvick, who was running 10th at the time, had to pass one more car in order to break the tie and advance. On the final lap, Harvick ran down last year's champion Kyle Busch and drove to his inside preparing to pass him. Then, the impossible happened.
Coming to the finish line, out of pure desperation, Harvick intentionally spun Busch but, in trying to avoid the spinning 18 car, spun himself in the process. While Busch made a complete 360 and maintained his position, Harvick's number 4 car backed into the front stretch wall, suffering major damage.
Harvick crossed the finish line 17th and missed making the championship race by eight points.
After the race, Harvick apologized to Busch for "putting him in the middle of trying to gain a point". The Bakersfield, CA native won a career-high nine races in 2020, establishing himself as the clear favorite to win his second Cup championship.
"These championships aren't like how like (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt used to win them," Harvick said, who at one point was two laps down after making a green-flag pit stop, on lap 180, for a flat tire. "You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race."
That "one race", the championship race, has the four drivers below competing next week to claim the coveted Bill France Cup trophy:
Teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, from Penske Racing, will look to claim their second titles after Keselowski won in 2012 and Logano, 2018. Both Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott have never won a Cup title. Hamlin finished second in 2010 and fourth last season. Elliott makes his first final four appearance.
It all comes down to the Season Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway, which starts this Sunday at 3 p.m. on NBC.