CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Busch, leading a race he had to win, not once believed he was driving toward victory lane.
Busch wound up 30th, extending his winless run as this season remained on track to be the worst of his NASCAR Cup Series career, and was knocked from the playoffs. It's the earliest a reigning champion has been eliminated since the format debuted in 2014.
Chase Elliott won on the hybrid road course-and-oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Busch and three others were trimmed from title contention. It was Elliott's fourth straight road course victory dating to last season and helped keep him in a field of championship contenders that now numbers just eight.
The remaining events on the schedule — at Kansas Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway before the field is trimmed to four drivers for the championship finale at Phoenix Raceway — won't have the incentive of a title for Busch, who also won a Cup Series crown in 2015. But like others not in contention, he will drive on, meaning the 35-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver has four chances to try to extend a streak of at least one Cup Series win to 16 seasons.
For now, his bumpy ride continues, and he seemed as good as done when a flat tire at the end of the second stage should have ended his chances. He sounded resigned when over his radio he said, "Good job this year, guys," to the JGR No. 18 Toyota crew.
However, Busch worked his way back into the top three and took the lead when he gambled and didn't pit under caution. His fate was in his hands for the final 20 laps, but Busch knew he didn't have a chance.
"We were trying something, anything," Busch said. "I didn't have anything for nobody."
Busch led just one lap after the restart before both teammate Erik Jones and Elliott passed him, and then his Toyota began to fade. Busch finished 30th, and for the first time since the year before he won his first title, he won't be among the championship four in the season finale.
He acknowledged the mental toll of this disappointing year and didn't rule out personnel changes for his team.
"There have certainly been times this year were I've thought, 'Man, there was something wrong with me. I'm not doing it right, I don't know what I'm doing,'" Busch said. "I don't know what to think, but certainly it would be nice to score a win. To have a win for this year, that would be the consolation prize for the way this year has gone."
Austin Dillon in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola in Fords also were eliminated. Bowyer, who this past week said he's retiring at the end of the season and will move to the television booth, was taken to the care center for treatment of an undisclosed ailment after the race.
Elliott, meanwhile, won for the second consecutive year at "The Roval" and third time this season. It's the 24-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver's second win this season at Charlotte. The Dawsonville, Georgia, native won on the main oval in May after NASCAR resumed racing during the pandemic.
Elliott will try to take that momentum into the round of eight, which he advanced to for the fourth straight year. He has never made it to the championship finale.
"Best way to get into the next round is to win," Elliott said. "Looking forward to the opportunity and looking to make some noise."
Elliott advanced along with JGR's Denny Hamlin and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kurt Busch, who won the first two races of the second round, along with Team Penske's Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, SHR's Kevin Harvick, JGR's Martin Truex Jr. and Hendrick's Alex Bowman, who was worried a Kyle Busch win would bump him from the playoffs.
"You come to the Roval, stressful. It's a cutoff week, stressful. You're surrounded in points by champions of the sport, extra stressful," Bowman said. "You're trying to beat Kyle Busch, and it's going to rain. It's like how many stressful elements can you add to one thing?
When Busch didn't pit, Bowman nervously asked his team if he was about to be eliminated.
It didn't matter as fellow Hendrick driver Elliott took control and proved to be the best active road course racer in NASCAR with a 42% winning percentage.
"I feel like road courses have been fortunate to us the last few trips," Elliott said, "but I feel like we just try to get a little better every time and tweak on the small things."
Logano finished second and was followed by Jones, who is not in the playoffs, and Kurt Busch.