Chase Elliott began Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in a bit of trouble. He was 25 points below the cutline in the battle for a spot in next weekend’s Championship 4 race and he was riding a 0-for-30 career streak at short tracks.
But none of that mattered as the massively popular Hendrick Motorsports driver passed Martin Truex Jr. for the lead with 43 laps to go. He held that lead the rest of the way to get the win and the automatic berth in the four-driver championship race next weekend in Phoenix.
Elliott’s victory in the Xfinity 500 came by 6.5 seconds over runner-up Ryan Blaney.
He led a race-best 236 laps at the .526-mile Martinsville paper-clip shaped track.
Joining Elliott in the Championship 4 will be Joey Logano of Team Penske, who secured his berth three weeks ago with a win at Kansas Speedway, Brad Keselowski of Team Penske and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing, who snuck in on points.
A trio of drivers who looked like locks to advance to the final four ran into big trouble Sunday.
The thought of Kevin Harvick not making the Championship race seemed inconceivable when the Martinsville race started — the Stewart-Haas Racing driver had won a series-best nine times on the season and was 42 points above the cutline on Sunday morning.
But after the race started, Harvick quickly began losing ground. But when Kurt Busch moved to the lead early in the second stage, Harvick was in 25th place and at that point, below the cutline.
On Lap 180, while running 25th, Harvick suffered a cut tire and had to pit. That put him two laps down. But four laps later, the yellow flag waved and Harvick took the wave-around and moved to just one lap down.
He stayed a lap down and in danger of not advancing until there was just over 100 laps to go. At that point, a caution came out with Harvick the first car a lap down and his day took a big turn for the better as he got back on the lead lap. He battled Brad Keselowski of Team Penske and Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing the rest of the way for the final Championship 4 berth.
But coming to the finish line, Harvick wrecked as he tried to pass Kyle Busch to grab the one point that would have given him the berth and his high hopes for a 2020 championship ended, putting Keselowski and Hamlin in the final four.