The four drivers eligible for the 2020 NASCAR Cup championship have been determined, and the title favorite is not among them. In a wild and frenetic race at Martinsville on Sunday, Chase Elliott vaulted himself into the championship round by winning the race. The second-generation driver is making his first appearance in the championship round, and this is the first time Chevrolet has been back in the championship round since Jimmie Johnson won the title in 2016.
Joey Logano was already locked into the final round with his victory at Kansas two weeks ago. His Penske teammate Brad Keselowski will be there as well, as the two drivers will aim to capture their second career championship next weekend. The final driver competing for the title in Phoenix is Denny Hamlin, who narrowly squeezed in on Sunday night thanks to some clean driving from his teammates.
Perhaps the biggest headline from the weekend was who didn’t make it into the championship round. Kevin Harvick dominated the regular season, and can still play spoiler next weekend at a track that he has dominated over the years. With 9 wins already this season, the Stewart-Haas driver could still become the first driver to win 10 races in a season since Johnson in 2007. Finding himself out of the playoffs by just 1 point on the final lap, he had to make a desperation move on Kyle Busch, which did not pan out the way he had intended.
Drivers, fans, and media were all buzzing about Harvick being knocked out, but this is what NASCAR has wanted. The regular season is quite different from each round of the playoffs, which gives it a big-time feel. The last driver to win at least 9 races in a season but finish worse than 4th in the final standings was David Pearson in 1976.
Elliott led a race-high 236 of 500 laps and won the second stage of the race on Sunday. He took the lead for good with 43 laps to go and drove away from the field. It is his fourth win of the season and first at Martinsville. “Oh, my gosh. This is the biggest win ever for us,” said Elliott. “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. And, to do that tonight, we couldn’t ask for a better night. This is just unbelievable. We’re going to Phoenix with a shot to win a championship and have a beautiful blue NAPA Camaro headed out there with a shot to win a title.”
The night was nearly a disaster for Elliott though. On a late pit stop, Elliott’s jackman was over the wall too soon, and initially, a penalty was called. This likely would have ended Elliott’s shot at the victory and the Championship 4, but upon review, the crew member knew to get back off pit road and behind the wall, resetting his position. His quick-thinking saved the day and set the stage for Chase to get the win.
Harvick suffered a cut tire that put him in between a rock and a hard place. His car wasn’t great either, which made it difficult for him to climb out of the hole he was in. Martin Truex Jr was in contention for the win as well but a loose wheel forced him to make an unscheduled pit stop late in the race, which ended his hopes of getting back to the final four. Kurt Busch finished 5th on Sunday and Alex Bowman just behind him in 6th but neither driver had enough points to advance.
Looking ahead to championship weekend in Phoenix, it is tough to say for certain who the favorite is. Both Penske drivers have won a championship, which may or may not provide them with an edge. Logano won in Phoenix earlier this season, but Denny Hamlin has 7 wins this season for a reason. Elliott has all of the momentum with his victory on Sunday. Elliott started on pole in Phoenix earlier this year and finished 7th while Keselowski finished 11th and Hamlin came home in 20th position. Three of the four drivers led at least 60 laps in that race, which was back on March 8 before the pandemic began.
Harvick leads all active drivers with 9 wins at Phoenix, which is why he could play the role of spoiler on Sunday. Among the championship four drivers, Hamlin and Logano both have 2 wins each, while Keselowski is winless in 22 starts in the desert. Hamlin has the best average finish (11.3) among the four drivers, and also has led the most laps (821) at Phoenix. Hamlin won the Fall race at Phoenix last year and is the only driver in the championship round from last season.
The Season Finale 500 at the one-mile Phoenix Raceway takes place next Sunday at 3 PM ET on NBC. The projected starting lineup at Phoenix will have Elliott on the pole, with Logano on the outside of the front row. Keselowski will start 3rd and Hamlin 4th.