Kevin Harvick, the winningest driver this season, will not have a chance to race for the Cup championship after he fell eight points short of advancing.
Harvick faced elimination with Chase Elliott, who entered the race outside a transfer spot, winning to take a spot in the championship round. That left Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Harvick to race for the final two spots.
Harvick, the regular-season-champion, was a point down on the last lap. His last-ditch effort to knock Kyle Busch out of the way for that one position didn’t work, ending Harvick’s championship hopes. It also snaps his streak of making the title race at three consecutive years. He had made the title race in five of the previous six years.
Harvick won nine races this year and still could become only the third driver in the last 25 years to win 10 or more races in a season if he wins next week’s season finale at Phoenix.
But in this playoff format – even with the 67 playoff points Harvick scored before Sunday’s race – the key is to win the third round. Harvick finished second at Kansas, 16th at Texas and 17th at Martinsville in this round. Not winning at Kansas and not finishing in the top 15 in other two races in the round doomed Harvick.
Asked by NBC Sports’ Marty Snider if he felt missing the title race was a possibility going into the race, Harvick said: “For sure with the way we’ve run here in the past. Everybody kept battling there. I tried to run into the door of (Busch) as a last-ditch effort and spun him out. Sorry to put him in the middle of trying to gain a point. Not a great three weeks. Didn’t go our way. Fought for everything we had. Just came up short.
“Look, these championship aren’t like winning like (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt used to win them. You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and came up short.”
Kurt Busch said of Harvick failing to make the title race: “It’s hard to fathom. I never expected that out of the No. 4 team.”
Said Martin Truex Jr. of Harvick’s situation: “That’s insane.”
A flat left tire early hurt Harvick and he could not get back on the lead lap for more than 200 laps. It also didn’t help that he struggled with his car’s handling throughout the 500-lap race.
Harvick suffered a flat left rear tire after contact with Matt Kenseth at Lap 180 . Harvick pitted under green and was two laps down. A caution on Lap 186 allowed for Brennan Poole’s accident allowed Harvick to do the wave around and get one of those laps back.
The drama turned to if Harvick could get his lap back with the free pass on the caution. He was the only car a lap down but moments before the caution came out on Lap 217 for Ryan Preece’s incident, Timmy Hill had been lapped. Hill got the free pass with the caution instead of Harvick.
Hill later got the free pass again at the end of stage 2 at Lap 260. Harvick was the third car a lap down at that time.
“We got a couple laps down and every time we’d get close one of the other cars would get lapped and so it just wound up not working out for us quick enough to get back where we needed to be,” Harvick said.
Harvick eventually got back on the lead lap at Lap 401 during a caution when he got the free pass.
Even from there, he struggled to gain positions, climbing into the top 10 with less than 10 laps left.
Despite what was at stake, Harvick downplayed the disappointment.
“No, I’ve been punched in the gut a lot harder,” he said. “We won nine races, had a great year, and, like I said, the championship is kind of a bonus. It would be great to win it, obviously, but I’d rather go through the year and win races and do the things that we did and just came up short.”
Also failing to advance to the title race were Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch and Truex.
“It sucks,” Truex said of not advancing.
Few could have imagined that Harvick would fail to advance.
“I feel bad for Kevin,” Hamlin told NBC’s Snider. “They probably deserve a little better than that. It’s just the format, I guess. Three races, and everything you can do for eight innings doesn’t matter if you don’t have a great ninth inning. It’s tough to see. I really wish we were going to race those guys, but it’ll be a tough battle with those other three we have to race.”
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch spin in the last corner!
— #NASCARPlayoffs on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 1, 2020
— Rodney Childers (@RodneyChilders4) November 2, 2020