Chase Elliott took advantage of a double overtime finish and a masterful pit-row strategy on Oct. 20 in the Hollywood Casino 400 to clinch the final berth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8.
Finishing second overall and gathering 15 points with top-5 finishes in both stages of the race, Elliott and his crew did just enough to overcome a 22-point deficit in the standings and slipped past Brad Keselowski to keep the No. 9 team’s 2019 playoff hopes alive.
“We just got lucky, really. To run second was good; wish we could have won,” Elliott said. “But the rest of it really didn’t have to do with me, just good fortune and getting the right amount of points. To go through all the stuff we did these past two weeks and still move on is a … is a wonder, that’s for sure.”
Denny Hamlin held off Elliott’s late charge in the final overtime to secure his spot in the next round of the postseason with his fifth win of the year. Hamlin, who started the race from the twenty-third position, moved into the lead early and held it for the majority of the race as he led the field for a race high 153 laps.
“I just had to hold the bottom and get a good push,” Hamlin said. “Once we got out front, we could hold it wide open. Our car was built for downforce, so it worked out that it was just fast enough to win.”
Brad Keselowski entered the race in sixth place of the Cup Series standings with a narrow lead over Elliott and the two battled until the very end before it was determined who was in and who was out. Racing in and out of the top-10 all afternoon, Keselowski looked sure to advance until three cautions in the last dozen laps overturned the playoff picture.
The drama began to unfold on lap 264 of 277 when Ryan Blaney shredded his tires along the wall to bring out the fifth caution of the race. At this point, Keselowski led Elliott by three points for the final playoff spot.
Elliott took advantage of the pause to change all four tires, while Keselowski opted to stay on the track.
On the ensuing restart, with only a handful of laps remaining, Elliott, now trailing Keselowski by a single point, slipped into second place looking to win the race outright before another caution, due to a Bubba Wallace accident, reset the field for a two-lap overtime run.
Elliott maintained his second-place position for what appeared to be the final restart of the day while Keselowski dropped to thirteenth after a brief pit-stop under the yellow flag. One lap later, split-seconds before Hamlin crossed the start-finish line to make it an official race, a third caution flag flew caused by Keselowski getting loose into the side of Daniel Saurez.
Once again, the field quickly shuffled in and out of pit-row and hit the track for another two-lap overtime run. This time Elliot, needing four points to advance, started third while Keselowski fell to thirteenth. Under the green flag, Elliott surged into second place and nearly chased down Hamlin for the win, crossing the line a mere .218 seconds behind the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.
Keselowski, needing to do nothing but hold his position, made an ill-fated move to the outside to get caught three-wide and lose six positions for a nineteenth-place finish that ended his playoff hopes in a stunning conclusion to the season.
“We didn’t make it. I pushed as hard as I knew how and didn’t quite do good enough on the last restart and that was it,” Keselowski said. “We clawed as hard as we could and there were times it looked like we were going to be fine and times it didn’t. In the end it didn’t work out.”
For Elliott’s crew-chief Alan Gustafason the last second playoff berth was almost shocking after a difficult trio of races in the Round of 12 as the No. 9 team looks ahead to Martinsville where Gustafason guided Jeff Gordon to victory lane in 2015 to make the Championship 4.
“It’s never easy,” Gustafson said. “Dover was tough. That was probably in my career one of the more difficult things to go through. You come off the high of winning at the Roval and we worked really hard to accrue a good amount of bonus points.”
“Just looking forward to getting there and going at it. We’ve been kind of finicky, kind of hit or miss. … I’m excited to go there, but I need to go to work on it now to make sure all the I’s are dotted, and all the T’s are crossed.”
Along with Elliott and Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all advanced to the Round of 8 based on their performance in Kansas. Kyle Larson and Blaney round out the field by virtue of their wins at Dover and Talladega, respectively.
William Byron, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Keselowski were the four drivers eliminated from the playoffs.
The third round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series gets underway on Oct. 27 at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia with the First Data 500. The race is scheduled to begin at 3 P.M. Eastern Standard Time.