Chase Elliot’s pursuit of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship officially came to an end on lap 166 of Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
Elliott entered the Nov. 3 race facing a must-win scenario to preserve any hope of advancing to the Championship Four for next week’s final race in Homestead. After losing a tire in Turn 1 and making heavy contact with the wall, any chance of finishing the race, much less winning, disappeared.
Prior to the incident, the No. 9 NAPA Chevy was running a strong race, and was well placed to make his bid for the win in the final stage. Starting from the sixth position, Elliott finished second in stage one and third in stage two.
The 39th place finish rounded out a disappointing Round of 8 that also included finishes of 36th at Martinsville and 32nd in Texas.
“It’s just a continuation of our first two weeks, unfortunately. I hate it for our NAPA group. We had a decent NAPA Chevy today. These last three weeks have been pretty rough, you never want a round to go like that,” Elliott said. “Hopefully Homestead goes better, and we can get prepared good for next season and get a good notebook for next year.”
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch became the final two drivers to clinch their spots in the Championship Four with a one-two finish joining teammate Martin Truex Jr. (finished sixth) and Stewart-Hass Racing driver Kevin Harvick (finished fifth) in the battle for the cup.
The Fed-Ex Toyota team entered the race ranked fifth in the standings, 20 points below the bubble. Needing an almost perfect race to advance, Hamlin delivered with a stage one victory, a second place run in stage two, and a dominating performance in the final stage to take the win.
Hamlin led a race high 143 laps, to include 142 of the final 146 laps and was outpacing the field by almost 12 seconds when John Hunter Nemecheck broke loose into the wall with nine laps to go, erasing the lead and forcing a restart the leveled the playing field.
Holding off two playoff drivers in Busch and Ryan Blaney, Hamlin maintained his lead in a three-wide run through Turns 1 and 2 to cross the finish line three car-lengths ahead of the field.
“The caution was the most nervous moment. I knew it was inevitable. I’ve been through so much at this race-track,” Hamlin said. “Obviously in 2010 and the downfall of our championship run there to get it all back 10 years later, this is special to me.”
“One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that. Fast car. That’s all we had. So proud of this whole FedEx racing team,” Hamlin continued. “There’s still work to be done. Doesn’t guarantee a championship. Gives us a chance. Live to fight another day. That’s all you can ask for.”
With the exception of Elliott, every playoff driver finished in the top-ten, but the one-two punch of Hamlin and Busch was enough to negate Blaney’s third place finish along with Kyle Larson’s fourth place run. Joey Logano saw his title defense come to an end in ninth place.
“(Denny Hamlin) had an amazing race car there. So, he would have had been tough to beat. But obviously with that final restart there, everybody felt like they had another chance to try and beat him,” Larson said. “It’s still a good year for us. It was a little rough in the beginning of the season, but we have rebounded from that, worked hard, got our cars better and our team better. We were battling for a championship. We’ll go to Homestead next week, race and try to get a win.”
The green flag is scheduled to fly at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 10 for the start of the Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Miami Speedway as the Championship Four of Harvick, Truex Jr., Hamlin and Busch race for the title while the 36 remaining drivers look to play spoiler in the final race of 2019.