Every driver who has won NASCAR Cup Series championship Elliott entered this penultimate race ranked sixth in the playoff standings and was basically in a must-win situation, barring some catastrophic disaster from the drivers ahead of him. With his 10th career win, he booked a spot in the final four for the first time in his Cup Series tenure.
"This is the biggest win ever for us," an ecstatic Elliott said. "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 [being able to] perform when we don’t have a choice. And, to do that tonight; we couldn’t ask for a better night. This is unreal."
In addition to Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski will compete for the 2020 championship next Sunday at Phoenix (3 p.m. ET, NBC).
Logano won at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago in the first race of the Round of 8, automatically locking himself into the final four. But with Kyle Busch winning last week at Texas Motor Speedway after his elimination from the playoffs, the other three drivers needed to win or have enough points to be among the top-4 by the end of the Martinsville race.
But more on them in a moment.
Without winning the race, Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch didn't have enough points in the playoff standings and didn't make the championship cut. Bowman, Truex and Busch all likely needed to win the race to keep their title hopes alive, but Harvick is the real shocker here.
As the regular-season champion, Harvick entered the playoffs with a massive points lead over most of the playoff drivers. With his series-leading and career-high nine wins on the season, he clearly had the car to beat all year, and he had what was once a comfortable cushion in the standings. When the postseason started, Harvick was the clear favorite to win his second title.
Kevin Harvick dominated 2020 with nine regular-season wins but rough races at Texas and Martinsville knocked him out of championship contention. (Photo: Brian Fluharty, USA TODAY Sports)
"These championships aren't like winning when [Richard] Petty and [Dale] Earnhardt used to win them," Harvick said afterward. "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."
Despite winning two of three races in the opening Round of 16, Harvick didn't win a race in the Round of 12 or the first two races in the Round of 8. He entered Sunday's Martinsville race 42 points above the cutoff line, but a tire issue forced him to pit under green in the first half of the race while he was running 25th. After that, the No. 4 team fell below the cutoff line and couldn't recover.
By the end of the race, Harvick needed to pass one car to make up for his small points deficit. On the last lap, he tried to move Kyle Busch for that one spot for what he called a "last-ditch effort" but wrecked instead.
"It was just a move I had to try knowing that I needed one point," Harvick said afterward. "I needed to hit him square in the door, but at that point, I was too late and wound up hitting him in the back. It was just a Hail Mary that didn’t work out."
For the last 18 NASCAR seasons, the goal for drivers was to get to Homestead-Miami Speedway, but starting this year, the championship race is at Phoenix Raceway, a 1-mile oval. Here's a look at how the championship-eligible drivers have previously performed at the desert track.
Joey Logano: The 2019 Cup Series champion has two wins at Phoenix, including earlier this season when he took the checkered flag in the fourth race of the season. The No. 22 Ford driver's only other victory at the track was in 2016. In 23 starts, Logano has five top-5 finishes and 12 top-10s, but as recent seasons have shown, the championship-winning driver has also been the race winner.
Brad Keselowski: The 2012 Cup Series champion has never won at Phoenix, and his best finish was second in the 2018 playoff race. He has six top-5 finishes and 10 top-10s. But he and the No. 2 Ford team may have an advantage in this race. In September, Keselowski won at Richmond Raceway with the same car he won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with in August. And he said, "I want this car for Phoenix. It's two-for-two."
Denny Hamlin: Still looking for his first championship, Hamlin has two career wins at Phoenix, and the most recent one was last fall when the track was the last stop before Homestead. Hamlin won in dominating fashion and led 45.8 percent of the laps. In 30 starts, he has 13 top-5 finishes and 17 top-10s, but in his most recent Phoenix race in March, he finished 20th.