By David Morgan, Associate Editor
And then there were four.
Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville marked the end of the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, which would see four drivers moving on to compete for the championship and the end of the line for the other four.
Three of the four drivers eliminated when the checkered flag flew were in must win positions coming into the day, but a fierce battle for the final spot between Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin would become the focus of the day as the laps wound down with Chase Elliott on his way to punching his ticket into the Championship 4.
A lackluster race at Texas last week put Harvick in the precarious position he found himself in at Martinsville, with the myriad of issues the team faced on Sunday only compounding the situation.
Struggling with handling issues throughout the first two stages, things went from bad to worse for the No. 4 team when a flat left rear tire sent Harvick to pit road on lap 183, which dropped him two laps down to the leaders.
Despite the hole he found himself in, Harvick eventually got back onto the lead lap with 100 laps to go in the race and set his sights on making up the ground he had lost. However, the car just didn’t have the necessary speed to be able to challenge the way he wanted to and it became a game of inches between himself, Hamlin and Keselowski to see which of the three would be on the outside looking in at the end of the day.
Harvick managed to climb all the way to 11th with Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate ahead of him and only one point separating him from being one of the four drivers competing for a championship next weekend at Phoenix.
In a last-ditch effort to make it in, Harvick charged into the final set of corners, making contact with Busch in the process. The move was a swing and a miss as Busch was able to maintain control of his car and finish 10th, while Harvick spun himself out and came to rest against the inside wall on the frontstretch.
Ultimately, all the wins and points Harvick racked up along the way as the regular season champion weren’t enough to keep him off the chopping block.
The news of Harvick’s elimination came as a surprise to some of his fellow drivers, with Kurt Busch noting it was “hard to fathom” and Martin Truex, Jr. echoing Busch’s sentiments, saying “It’s insane.”
As for Harvick himself, he took the loss in stride, electing to focus on the success his team has had in 2020 rather than the gut punch of winning so many races, but not being able to go for another championship.
“We won nine races, had a great year, and, like I said, the championship is kind of a bonus,” Harvick said. “It would be great to win it, obviously, but I’d rather go through the year and win races and do the things that we did.
“These championships aren’t like winning like Petty and Earnhardt used to win them. You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and came up short.”
Heartbreak. 💔 pic.twitter.com/bSULT0QFsg
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) November 1, 2020
Joining Harvick in the foursome of those eliminated at Martinsville were Truex, Kurt Busch, and Alex Bowman – all of whom needed to win the race to be able to advance.
The closest of the four to nearly accomplish that feat was Truex, who battled with eventual race winner Chase Elliott down the stretch before a loose wheel late in the race sent him to pit road and ended his hopes for a championship.
“We had a great car all day long and just kept making adjustments waiting for it to cool off and get dark,” said Truex after finishing 22nd. “That last run there before the final pit stop, the thing was on rails and it was perfect and we were driving away. I felt really good about it. Then we pitted and had a pretty good pit stop.
“Came out with the lead and right away I knew something was wrong. I was really, really tight and had a vibration. The 9 (Chase Elliott) car passed us and we started dropping and had to pit for a loose wheel. Unfortunate. I think we should be the one in victory lane right now, but you have to do it all. Just a little mistake there.”
A blown engine at Kansas put Busch behind the eight-ball early on and the No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing just couldn’t recover, even with a seventh at Texas and a fifth-place finish at Martinsville.
“You’re an underdog when you go in ranked eighth out of eight,” Busch said. “We had an engine problem at Kansas and that just kicked us straight in the shin. From there, we had to win. Texas, we just didn’t get the job done – we got seventh. Today, we got fifth. Those are great quality finishes, but you can’t rely on those in the Playoffs against the best of the best. Right now, (Kevin) Harvick’s not in. That just shows you how tough this competition is.”
As for Bowman, he never finished lower than sixth in any of the races in the Round of 8, but it still wasn’t enough to be able to claim a spot among the top four to move on to compete for a title at his home track in Phoenix.
“I drive this place so wrong,” Bowman said. “I try to roll the center really fast and then I am like oh we don’t have any drive off. You would think I would figure it out, but I kind of know what I need to do. All in all, a good day for our Planters Chevrolet. Mr. Peanut looked pretty cool. Really proud of Chase (Elliott) and making the final four there. Bummed we aren’t a part of it, but I think we have a solid shot at getting fifth in points. The progress this team has made over the past two months has been incredible. This is something they really deserve.”