Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Chase Elliott was nothing short of dominant on Sunday, leading a career-high 236 laps en route to the victory at Martinsville Speedway. It wasn’t as easy as that makes it sound, as Elliott battled Martin Truex Jr., who also had to win to move on in the playoffs. A loose wheel in the closing laps dropped Truex out of the lead and out of contention, while Elliott went on to take the checkers for the fourth time in 2020.
It was clear from the start that Elliott had a fast car and his team kept it that way as the track transitioned from the afternoon sun into the evening. He was also helped by a 50-lap green flag run to the finish, keeping Ryan Blaney, whose car was a rocket late in the race, from getting a shot at him for the top spot.
Elliott was also helped by a somewhat obscure NASCAR rule. Initially penalized for a crewman over the wall too early on a late stop, NASCAR rescinded the penalty when video showed the crewman went back to the wall before servicing the car. It’s the 10th win of Elliott’s career and will be the first time Hendrick Motorsports makes a championship appearance since 2016 when Jimmie Johnson win the title.
Blaney, meanwhile, clearly didn’t care if he spoiled the playoff drivers’ day. His car got faster throughout the race, and he led 36 laps in the final stage. A slow pit stop mired him back a few spots late, but he was able to race to the runner-up position at the end, a solid race in what’s been an inconsistent season for the Team Penske driver. A win at Talladega sewed up a playoff spot, but bad luck and inconsistency were his undoing. A strong finish to the year would give the No. 12 some positive momentum into 2021.
What… was the hidden gem in the race?
Martinsville was the perfect choice as the final elimination in the playoffs because it’s a track where the race is more in the drivers’ hands than the aero tracks. It’s also less of a crapshoot than Talladega and usually produces a good show for fans.
It did that on Sunday with a race where not just the playoffs took center stage, but drivers out of that spotlight also grabbed some notice.
While there weren’t too many fireworks, Kevin Harvick showed he was willing to use his bumper to secure a spot in the championship race. While it didn’t work out, it showed that a driver with fire can still make things happen with muscle when aerodynamics is secondary and a driver can take matters into their own hands.
Fans are always treated to the very best of what NASCAR has to offer, and its oldest track playing such a major role in the title hunt is as good as it gets.
Where… were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter Brad Keselowski led a handful of laps and finished fourth, and that was with the weakest car in the Penske stable. A pit road penalty mired him in traffic, but Keselowski was able to make up position after position as the laps ticked away. He never looked like he had a winning car, but he had enough of a car to score the finish he needed to advance in the hunt for his second Cup title.
Active Martinsville win leader Johnson saw what was likely his last, best chance to go out with a win slip away. A speeding penalty while running in the top 10 put him deep in the field, and he only was able to recover to 21st before a cut tire cost the seven-time champion four laps on pit road. A stellar first half of the race was likely Johnson’s swan song in NASCAR as he’ll run for the final time next week at Phoenix Raceway, out of the spotlight that he should have had on him this year.
Last week’s winner Kyle Busch looked like he might be strong enough to pull off his second win of 2020 just a week after the first. Busch led five laps early and was a contender for a top five for most of the day but fell short of a winning bid. Busch came home ninth, as the track got away from him a bit as night fell.
Point leader Harvick put together one of the most dominant seasons in NASCAR’s modern era, with nine wins and an average finish of 7.3 to date. It wasn’t enough as he will sit on the sidelines when the championship is decided next weekend at Phoenix. Harvick could never find a balance in his car that he liked and a flat tire and unscheduled stop to fix it put him in a hole he couldn’t dig out of as Elliott and Truex proved to be the class of the field.
When… was the moment of truth?
Harvick’s elimination brings to a head what was always a questionable championship system at best. In essence, one race can erase a year of dominance. That will happen this year as Harvick, who won nine times and never finished a playoff race outside the top 20, was eliminated.
And that should never have happened.
Since it appears that this title system, which makes for entertaining television if not for a particularly legitimate champion, is here to stay, something needs to change. Whether that means an automatic Championship 4 spot for the regular season winner or enough playoff points to that driver to all but guarantee it, the winningest driver of the season should not miss a shot at the championship. It’s bad enough when the best drivers on the season lose the title in one single race, which we’ve seen happen, but for them to not even be contenders calls into question the legitimacy of a NASCAR Cup title under this system. There should be no question that the champion was the best driver in any given year.
This year, there’s not only a question, but the answer is simply that he will not be.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
Well, probably not this week, but there were certainly a couple of things coming out of the race that need addressing in the offseason. One is, of course, the points system that denies the top driver of the year a championship chance. Whether that means a bid for the regular season champ, more playoff points for race winners or something else, it’s hard to argue that something doesn’t need to change.
The other rule that needs a look is the one that allows a crew member to reset the over-the-wall penalty by going back to the wall before servicing the car. That rule is for safety, plain and simple. It’s different from a driver sliding through the box and having to back up. The point is to keep crewmen from getting run over, and that danger isn’t erased by playing tag, not it with the wall. It’s the first time in a while where we’ve seen a rule that actually allows for crewman to be put at risk of getting hurt, and it should go away before someone does.
How… does the Championship 4 look heading to Phoenix?
Denny Hamlin should enter the race as the favorite, with his seven wins second only to Harvick’s nine this year. He’s also the defending fall race winner at Phoenix, with two victories there overall and an average finish two spots better than any of the other three contenders. But he’s had a relatively weak playoffs and carries no momentum forward, and he’s always been his own worst enemy in the playoffs, particularly in the final race with a title on the line.
If momentum means anything, Elliott’s got the most recent dose of it. Still, the reigning Most Popular Driver has lacked consistency in 2020 and his Hendrick Motorsports team is overall the weakest of the three in the title race. He’s decent at Phoenix but it’s hard to give him any advantage there by the numbers.
Joey Logano also carries a certain amount of momentum after winning at Kansas and finishing third Sunday. He’s the only driver in this group to have won a title under the current format and the most recent Phoenix winner. He might just be your title favorite.
His teammate Keselowski is also a former champion, but his came under the 10-race playoff format. He has never won at Phoenix, though he has a solid average finish and a handful of top fives. He also hasn’t won since Richmond, and his playoffs have been inconsistent. His Penske equipment is championship caliber, though, and he knows how to win. Don’t bet against him.