MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Chase Elliott could have won Sunday 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 and will be one of the final four drivers eligible for the championship for the third consecutive year. He won the series title in 2015.
It was a ho-hum race that got very intense in the waning laps and ended with a multicar wreck after Busch took the checkered flag.
Keselowski was in position to win until 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.
Instead, Logano spun and brought out a caution.
Keselowski was moved out of the way by Elliott after the restart, but Hamlin spun Elliott out of the lead with two laps remaining in regulation. Elliott wrecked, and he and Hamlin had a heated exchange after they climbed from their cars following the race.
It was a disastrous result for Elliott, who finished 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 (for the championship race), and because of him we don’t.”
Hamlin, meanwhile, faded to seventh after Busch bumped him in overtime.
“That was our chance to move to Homestead,” Busch said.
Keselowski wound up fourth, 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, which has won six of the seven playoff races. Truex and Busch have won three playoff races each.
Truex, the favorite to win the title, said he’s confident he’ll make the final four without having to bump Busch out of his way to grab the automatic berth.
“I don’t know that I would have done anything differently,” Truex said. “I think we can get to Homestead without making too many enemies. We’ll let everybody else fight and we’ll try to do our own thing.”
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.