Chase Elliott could have won at Martinsville Speedway. Same for Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin, too.
It was Kyle Busch, though, who punched his ticket into NASCAR’s championship race with the victory.
Busch moved Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin out of his way in overtime to win at Martinsville and earn a spot in the championship race for the third consecutive year. He won the series title in 2015.
It was a ho-hum race that got very intense, very quickly, in the waning laps.
Keselowski was in position to win when Joey Logano developed a tire problem with about 10 laps remaining in regulation. Had his Team Penske teammate pitted under green to fix the tire, Keselowski likely would have coasted to the win and earned the spot in the finale.
Instead, Logano spun and brought out a caution.
Keselowski was moved out of the way by Elliott after a restart, and Hamlin spun Elliott out of the lead with two laps remaining in regulation. Elliott wrecked, chased Hamlin down on the cool-down lap to show his displeasure, and the drivers had a heated exchange after they climbed from their cars.
It was a disastrous result for Elliott — from potential race winner to 27th, lowest of the eight remaining playoff drivers.
“My mom always said if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” Elliott said. “He’s not worth my time. I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race. I don’t know what his problem was. It was unnecessary and I hadn’t raced him dirty all-day long.
“We had the best car I’ve ever had here at Martinsville, and had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead and because of him we don’t.”
Elliott could repeatedly be seen saying ‘You wrecked me,’ to Hamlin as the crowd roared its approval over the tension.
Hamlin, meanwhile, faded to seventh after Busch bumped him for the win.
Keselowski wound up fourth in a race his team believed he had to win.
Instead, he was simply darting his way around a huge pileup on the final lap that ended an emotional opening race of the third round of the playoffs.
“Yeah, everybody is just desperate,” Keselowski said.
Martin Truex Jr. wound up second in a 1-2 sweep for Toyota. The favorite to win the title, he said he is confident enough he will make it to next month’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway without having to bump Busch out of his way to grab the automatic berth.
Clint Bowyer, not eligible for the playoffs, finished third.
Kevin Harvick was fifth in a Ford, Ryan Blaney eighth for the Wood Brothers of nearby Stuart, Virginia, and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson finished 12th.
That was a near victory for Johnson, who spun in Sunday morning qualifying and needed to make repairs to his Chevrolet that forced him to start last. A nine-time Martinsville winner, he used this race last year to vault him toward his record-tying seventh championship.
At one point late in Sunday’s race, Johnson was put a lap down by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott.
“We were just terrible all day,” Johnson said. “Oh, what a bummer. We had high hopes for this weekend.”
NASCAR experimented with a condensed two-day show at Martinsville, where qualifying was held a little more than three hours before the start of the race. Although roughly two hours of practice time was lost by dumping the third on-track day, fans did get an autograph session and Fan Fest after Saturday’s two practice sessions.
The long race day gave Martinsville the opportunity to make the NASCAR debut of its new $5 million LED lighting system.
The middle race of this playoff round, Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Carl Edwards is the defending race winner, but now retired. Johnson won at Texas in the spring.