MARTINSVILLE, VA. – Kevin Harvick was on cruise control all season, the most dominant driver in NASCAR, and rolled into the championship lap with a comfortable cushion that left plenty of room for error.
At least that is how it should go after Harvick won nine races in the Cup series and the title of the regular season.
Then his near-perfect season stalled on Sunday when a mediocre run knocked Harvick out of the playoffs in a breathtaking surprise at Martinsville Speedway.
Chase Elliott won the high stakes race and secured his first career spot in the fourth championship. It stopped Harvick a race before the title round in a staggering breakdown to a season that was spent as the favorite for winning the cup crown.
"We won nine races and had a great year. We were only close," said Harvick.
Eight points less, to be precise, after finishing 17th in Martinsville.
Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin will face Joey Logano, who has already occupied his berth, in next week's final in Phoenix. It's a matchup of a Ford pair from Team Penske against Hamlin's Toyota and Elliott, the first Hendrick Motorsport and Chevrolet driver to reach the finals since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh and final title in 2016.
Harvick was eliminated along with Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. who battled for victory until a late loose wheel finished his shot.
Harvick noted that NASCAR's 10-race championship format is very different from the seasonal points fight, which Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have each won seven times. The system now includes three series of three races with eliminations in each lap before four drivers line up for a championship shootout.
"They're not being won like Earnhardt and Petty. You have to put a couple of weeks together, and we haven't put these last few weeks together the way we needed to," Harvick said. We work in and it's obviously more entertaining than the whole thing Year.
"It's exciting to see."
Harvick was only mediocre at Martinsville and even fell off the pace for a lap after a flat tire. His Stewart-Haas Racing Team was in trouble and was desperately trying to set up his Ford to get back on the lead lap and back over the borderline.
But it was an incredibly long 500-lap quest on NASCAR's oldest and smallest speedway. Harvick raced for fourth and last place in the field, separated from Hamlin and Keselowski by one point in one lap, two in the next and then back to one.
These three drivers got into a tense battle for single-digit points again and again, because with Elliott at the top, only two places remained open for three drivers.
Harvick was one point below the cut line when Elliott crossed the finish line. He had to pass a car in front of him – Kyle Busch, Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing – to get to that point, and Busch wasn't going to make it easy.
Harvick tried to get Busch out of the way in a failed, desperate attempt as they neared the finish line. Both cars spun and Harvick's season was over.
"It was just one step that I had to try knowing I needed a point," said Harvick. "It was just a hail Mary that didn't work out. & # 39; & # 39;
Hamlin, a seven-time winner that season who raced Harvick year-round, complained that he hadn't met his rival in Phoenix.
"I feel bad for Kevin. I think they deserve to be there. There is no person on this planet who would say they are not a top four team," said Hamlin. "We wanted to create a Game 7 moment, so that's what you get.
"If you have a bad race or two in a three-race series, you're out. Anything you do for eight innings doesn't matter if you don't have a good ninth inning. & # 39; & # 39;
Elliott, meanwhile, scored a win that took him to the finals after three previous failures. It's a great professional on-track feat for NASCAR's favorite drivers and gave the beloved Elliott family their first Martinsville Trophy grandfather clock.
Bill Elliott was in the Hall of Fame 0:45 in Martinsville, and his son won on his 11th try.
"It's the biggest win we've ever had," said Chase Elliott, who won his 10th Cup and his career-best fourth win of the season. "I've never been in this position and it's exciting."
NASCAR this season took Martinsville to the final elimination race to turn the .0526-mile paper clip into a short-range crash. There were 500 laps with white knuckles in which all participants appeared to win but also had bobbles in the race.
Elliott had two bad pit stops in a row, including one late in the race where he could have taken a race-crippling penalty for his Jackman arriving early in the service stall. The crew member deftly ran back to the pit wall and touched it to restore his position. This resulted in NASCAR not calling the slip.
Keselowski was marked for speeding in the pit lane, Hamlin was hampered by loose wheel nuts during a stop, Truex had a loose wheel, and Harvick's flat tire had deflated its season.