KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Denny Hamlin was surrounded by Joe Gibbs Racing team-mates up front in the final restart, and that put Chase Elliott in the toughest and most precarious situations.
Somehow, he figured, he had to find a way to beat them all to advance through NASCAR playoffs.
It turned out that second place was good enough.
Hamlin roared with a shove from behind teammate Kyle Busch in the second attempt at green-white-plaid finishing, and Elliott failed to chase him. But deep in the field, Brad Keselowski was backing down, and the points he lost in the Kansas Speedway elimination race were enough to send Elliott to the eighth round.
Hamlin won the race. Elliott felt almost as if he did.
"You have to keep fighting these things, especially with the late race restart," he said. "Just excited, we have to fight another race. Back to the wall, to come here and fight for victory, that's what you have to do when you're in the position we were in."
With a bit of irony, it was Keselowski who helped alert in the first overtime when he entered Daniel Suarez and caused an accident that caught teammate Joey Logano. The field was near the finish line, but the warning light came on before the leader took the white flag.
If Hamlin had crossed a split second faster, the race would have ended and Keselowski saved.
"I tried as hard as I knew and didn't do well enough on the last restart and that was it," said Keselowski. "We grabbed as hard as we could and there were times when it felt like we were doing well and times when we didn't. In the end it didn't work out."
Kyle Busch finally finished third, followed by Kurt Busch and William Byron. But the key was Keselowski, who fell from 13 to 19 in the final restart and out of the next round of playoffs.
He finished three points – equal to three positions on the track – below the cut line.
Byron was the next driver eliminated despite a strong race in Kansas where he would need a win to advance. Alex Bowman and hometown hero Clint Bowyer were also eliminated.
"I thought we were fine," said Keselowski, "but obviously we weren't."
The win was the fifth of this season for Hamlin, who was already in good shape to advance, but earned valuable playoff points with the win. He has finished in the top five in Kansas twice in the last two years, but the trip to the victory track was the first for his Joe Gibbs Racing team since 2012.
"This was a difficult track for us. We didn't run very well here in the spring," said team boss Chris Gabehart. "We had some important adjustments that made us a dominant car."
The frantic push towards late Sunday began when Blaney scraped the wall with 14 points, causing the tire to fall and a warning flag to bear. Elliott was three points behind Keselowski at that point, but the Hendrick Motorsports playoff hopeful savior made a great play in the restart to move up to fourth, and that pushed Keselowski to regain ground.
Elliott was still in good shape until another caution flew, disrupting the front of the pack and giving Keselowski a chance. He made a quick stop and took three positions on the pit road, putting Elliott back in a situation where it looked like he would need a win to advance.
"I got the impression," he said.
The entire field went through the first playoff match cleanly, but Keselowski ran out of space at the bottom of the platoon and nudged Suarez, sending him to the wall. Logano was also heavily damaged in the wreckage, doubting his own hopes in the playoffs as another AT approached.
Hamlin made a good jump on the restart, and Elliott dove low and got in line. He immediately advanced to second place, while Keselowski began bleeding in the positions, and the change that was made in the last two laps was enough to send Elliott to the next round.
"If you get to Homestead, you have to fight for a victory," he said. "Proud of the effort. I learned a lot. To be able to come here and, as I said, in our minds we have to win, come and fight for one, finish second, I think it's a step in the right direction for us." "
OTHER PLAYBACK CONTROLLERS
Bowyer had a strong finish in eighth place, but the playoff score was not a factor most of the day, despite needing a win to advance. Kevin Harvick started the 40th day after inspection problems and never hit the track to qualify, but worked in the field to finish ninth.
"It wasn't a very good weekend from top to bottom," said Harvick. "I just didn't have a very good car and I didn't have a very good day on the track. Nothing worked out all weekend. It was definitely one of the worst weekends we've had in a while."
Among the non-playoff riders, Erik Jones was among his three Gibbs teammates in the race for victory before finishing seventh. Jimmie Johnson recovered from a slow start to finish 10th.
Keselowski won the spring race in Martinsville, although that probably doesn't make him feel much better returning now that he's out of the playoffs. Logano beat Hamlin in the playoff race a year ago.