The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 is set following Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway, with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch joining Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick in next weekend’s title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Two spots were up for grabs in the Round of 8 finale, with Truex Jr. and Harvick having clinched their spots with previous victories this round. Hamlin delivered one of the most clutch performances in NASCAR Playoffs history, becoming just the second driver to enter Phoenix below the cutline and win his way into the title field. That left the fourth spot to either Busch or Joey Logano, with Busch taking it via points after a runner-up finish and eliminating the reigning series champion in Logano.
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FIRST IN LINE: Truex Jr. officially clinched his spot by winning the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway, a fitting location given the year prior he was knocked out of the way in the final turn of the final lap. The short-track win was Truex Jr.’s seventh victory of the year, and his first at the venerable .526-mile facility.
TEXAS CLINCH: Harvick, meanwhile, qualified for his fifth Championship 4 appearance in six years of the playoff elimination format by winning his third consecutive fall race at Texas. The 2014 series champion and crew chief Rodney Childers remain one of the best pairings in the garage.
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WRECKED HOPES: Hamlin (-20), Blaney (-23), Larson (-23) and Elliott (-78) entered the Phoenix race below the cutline, some in more drastic positions this others. Elliott was the only driver who mathematically faced a must-win scenario before the green flag ever dropped.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver’s title hopes ended on Lap 167, though. Running in the top five — as he had done all day — the No. 9 Chevrolet appeared to have a tire issue, sending it hard into the wall in a single-car wreck. Elliott exited the race early, ensuring he’d finish outside the top 30 in every Round of 8 race.
“Just a continuation of our first two weeks, unfortunately,” Elliott told NBC. “These last three weeks have been pretty rough.”
STAGING A COMEBACK: Hamlin’s Stage 1 win earned him points against the two drivers just above the cutline in Busch and Logano, although they both finished in the top five as well. By the end of Stage 2, though — one in which Hamlin finished second, but Logano won and Busch finished in the top five again — it became clear that Hamlin would have to win his way in.
And he did.
BY THE NUMBERS: It’s the fifth Championship 4 appearance for Busch, Truex Jr. and Harvick alike. Hamlin will make his second career Championship 4 appearance, and first since he was part of the inaugural field of 2014.