KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Denny Hamlin was surrounded by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates at the front on the final restart Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway, and that put Chase Elliott in the most difficult and precarious of situations.
Somehow, Elliott figured, he needed to find a way to beat them all to advance in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
It turned out second place was good enough.
Hamlin roared away with a push from teammate Kyle Busch on the second shot at a green-white-checkered finish, and Elliott was unable to chase him down. But deep in the field, Brad Keselowski was going backward, and the spots he lost in the elimination race were enough to send Elliott through in the final cut-off spot to the third round in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet.
Hamlin won the race. Elliott, who survived as the playoff field was cut from 12 drivers to eight, felt almost as if he did.
"You have to stay fighting in these things, especially with the late-race restarts," Elliott said. "Just excited we get to fight another race. Back up against the wall, to come out here and battle for the win, that's what you have to do when you're in the position we were in."
Keselowski helped bring out the caution in the first overtime when he made contact with Daniel Suarez's car and triggered a wreck that collected 2018 Cup Series champion Joey Logano, who, like Keselowski, drives for Team Penske. The field was nearing the start-finish line, but the caution light came on before the leader took the white flag.
If Hamlin had crossed a split-second quicker, the race would have been over and Keselowski would have been safe.
"I pushed as hard as I knew how and didn't quite do good enough on the last restart, and that was it," said Keselowski, the 2012 season champion who failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2016. "We clawed as hard as we could, and there were times it looked like we were going to be fine and times it didn't.
"In the end, it didn't work out."
Kyle Busch ultimately finished third, followed by older Kurt Busch and William Byron, but the key was Keselowski, who dropped from 13th to 19th on the final restart and out of the next round of the playoffs. He ended up three points — equal to three positions on the track — below the cutoff line.
Byron was the next driver eliminated despite a strong run at Kansas, where he would have needed a win to advance. Alex Bowman and Sunflower State hero Clint Bowyer also were eliminated.
"I did think we were OK," Keselowski said, "but obviously we weren't."
Along with Elliott and JGR drivers Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., Team Penske's Logano and Ryan Blaney, Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson advanced.
The win was the fifth this season for Hamlin, who already was in good shape to move on but picked up valuable playoff points with the win.
"This was a tough track for us. We didn't run very good here in the spring," said Chris Gabehart, Hamlin's crew chief. "We got a few key adjustments that turned us into a dominant car."
The frenzied push to the finish Sunday began when Blaney scraped the wall with 14 laps to go, causing his tire to go down and a caution flag to fly. Elliott was three points behind Keselowski at that point, but the savior of Hendrick Motorsports' playoff hopes made a big move on the restart to climb to fourth place, and that put the pressure right back on Keselowski to make up ground.
Elliott was still in good shape until another caution flew, jumbling the front of the pack and giving Keselowski a chance. He made a quick stop and picked up three spots on pit road, putting Elliott back in a situation in which it appeared he would need a victory to advance.
"I was under the impression," he said.
The entire field got through the first playoff restart cleanly, but Keselowski ran out of room deep in the pack and nudged Suarez, sending him into the wall. Logano's car also was heavily damaged in the wreck, throwing his own playoff hopes into question as another overtime approached.
Hamlin got a good jump on the restart, and Elliott went low and got in line. He immediately moved forward into second place while Keselowski began hemorrhaging positions, and the change that was made in the final two laps was enough to send the 23-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia, native into the next round for the third straight season.
After races at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway over the next three weeks, the field of contenders will be cut in half as the final four race for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"If you ever get to Homestead, you're going to have to fight for a win," Elliott said. "Proud of the effort. Learned a lot. To be able to come out here and, like I said, in our minds have to win, come and fight for one, to finish second I think is step in the right direction for us."