NASCAR Championship 4 finalized

Alex Andrejev The Charlotte Observer (TNS)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Kevin Harvick will not be racing for the NASCAR championship this year after dominating the regular season. Instead, the four drivers competing for a title in 2020 are Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

Elliott won Sunday evening at Martinsville Speedway in a tense elimination race at the Virginia short track.

"Biggest win ever for us," Elliott said on NBC.

The No. 9 Chevrolet driver's 10th career Cup win sends him to the Championship 4 for the first time. He held an almost seven-second lead over second-place finisher Ryan Blaney at the checkered flag. Logano finished in third.

Elliott's evening ended in the smoke of celebratory donuts. Harvick's night ended in the smoke of a last-ditch effort to gain a point and a position by crashing out Kyle Busch, who he was racing down the frontstretch coming to the finish.

"I needed to hit him square in the door, but at that point I was too late, wound up hitting him in the back," Harvick said. "Just a Hail Mary that didn't work out."

Harvick was 42 points above the final four cutoff heading into Sunday's Xfinity 500. The regular-season champion amassed nine race wins in 2020, not letting more than five events pass between each victory until the Round of 8. Watching Harvick in a Hail Mary situation was unexpected.

"It's hard to fathom," Kurt Busch said of Harvick missing the championship round.

Martin Truex Jr. called the situation "insane."

Busch and Truex Jr. joined Harvick and Alex Bowman as the four playoff contenders eliminated after the Round of 8. While Truex Jr.'s night was more promising than Harvick's, with the No. 19 driver leading 129 laps of 500, a late loose wheel forced him to pit in the final stage and took him out of running for the lead. Elliott led the most laps with 236.

Many fans and drivers gawked at the finish, but Harvick was more resigned than surprised after his postseason exit. The No. 4's troubles started long before the final laps of Sunday's race. Harvick fell out of the top 10 early, reporting handling issues to miss points in the first stage.

Then, late in the second stage, a literal blow for the regular-season champion: A flat tire forced Harvick to make a green flag pit stop, sending him two laps down and jeopardizing his championship hopes.

Harvick battled through lapped traffic as the race leaders did the same, pinning the driver out of free pass position for a majority of the race until around 100 laps were left. That's when Harvick made a move to round Bubba Wallace. A timely caution flag flew shortly after, rewarding Harvick with the free pass, but he was still stuck multiple cars behind playoff drivers Hamlin and Keselowski.

"It just wound up not working out for us quick enough to get back where we needed to be," Harvick said.

The 2014 Cup champion said he'd been "punched in the gut a lot harder" during his NASCAR career and that he saw a championship as more of a bonus than a reward for a strong season.

"We had a great year," Harvick said. "(Championships) aren't won the same way that Earnhardt and Petty did. You have to put together a few weeks. We didn't put together these last few weeks like we needed to and just came up short."

In the end, it came down to a one-point difference for Harvick based on Hamlin's 11th-place finish and Keselowski's fourth-place finish. Now it's down to one race for the remaining drivers.

"It's a big deal for everybody to have a chance to win a championship," Elliott said. "I'm excited for everybody. I'm excited for myself. I'm gonna enjoy it and then we'll go to work tomorrow and get ready for the big day."