MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Alex Bowman was the only driver celebrating after NASCAR trimmed the Cup Series playoff field to its final four, and he's not even racing for the title.
Bowman picked up the victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in the final elimination race ahead of the season finale. Bowman wasn't eligible to make the championship round, and his overtime victory denied both Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski the final spot in the field.
The Cup Series championship will be decided next Sunday at sold-out Phoenix Raceway between favorite Kyle Larson and reigning champion Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports, and Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for Joe Gibbs Racing. It will pit a pair of Hendrick Chevrolets against two JGR Toyotas.
"I think the four most deserving teams are probably in the final four," said Larson, the regular-season champion and title favorite after winning nine points events as well as the $1 million All-Star Race this year. "I'm proud we were able to do it and look forward to battling everybody next week."
Ford was locked out of the championship field when Keselowski and Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano failed to advance from the eight-man field.
Busch finished second to Bowman and Keselowski at last settled for third after a frantic push through the third stage. Truex's car was damaged in several incidents, and both Busch and Keselowski were trying to bump Truex out of the final transfer position.
It led to spirited racing up and down the grid, especially from Keselowski as he tried to bulldoze his way into the championship round for his final race driving for Roger Penske. He and Busch had hard contact after the checkered flag that caused Busch to spin on the cooldown lap, and Busch seethed afterward that he should beat up Keselowski.
His verbal threats were a milder approach than the one taken by JGR teammate Hamlin after Bowman spun Hamlin from the lead with six laps remaining to send the race into overtime.
Hamlin had led 103 laps with victory in sight when Bowman spun him. Hamlin after the race drove his car to the front stretch and parked in front of Bowman to prevent the Hendrick No. 48 from a proper celebration of Bowman's fourth win of the season.
Bowman insisted the contact with Hamlin was accidental and wondered why he was so angry, because Hamlin has done the same to him.
"He crashed me at Texas last year. Texted me and apologized. Said he'd give me a ride on his jet," Bowman said. "We're even, I guess, after that. He crashed the heck out of me there. He got loose underneath me, exactly same thing, just on a bigger race track. My point is the shoe has been on the other foot, we've been on both sides of it."
Hamlin, who already has five Martinsville grandfather clock trophies, advanced into the championship on points, but his JGR crew had to radio him to back off as he confronted Bowman, who gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 16th win in 35 races this season and fourth in a row.
"He's just a hack, just an absolute hack who gets his ass kicked every week by his teammates," said Hamlin, a Virginia native who audibly did not have any home-crowd support.
The well-filled grandstands erupted in cheers when Bowman spun Hamlin, and then loudly booed Hamlin when he was interviewed over the public address system. Asked after if he was surprised by the fan reaction, Hamlin blamed reigning most popular driver Elliott and predicted the same reaction next weekend at Phoenix.
"It's just Chase Elliott fans, man. They don't think straightly," Hamlin said.
Elliott shrugged off Hamlin's critique.
"I'm going to lose so much sleep tonight. I might not sleep at all, that's how concerned I am," he said with a smile. "My fans don't care either, by the way."
Hamlin is in the final four for the fourth time, but the 40-year-old with 46 Cup Series career victories has never won the championship. Neither has Larson, 29, whose first season with Hendrick has accounted for more than half of his 15 career wins. Elliott, 25, won his first title last year. The 41-year-old Truex — who had to nurse a wounded car to a fourth-place finish Sunday to stop Busch from bumping him out of the finale — won his lone title with Furniture Row Racing in 2017.
The final four festivities were muted with Hamlin unhappy about the finish, Elliott disappointed he was 16th after leading a race-high 289 laps and sweeping the first two stages, and Larson unsatisfied when speeding penalties and silly mistakes snapped his three-race winning streak. Truex seemed relieved.
"It's never an easy situation to be kind of on your last run of the race, be in one minute and out the next," he said. "You know there's not a whole lot you can do other than drive."
Busch and Keselowski, meanwhile, were also unhappy. Keselowski wanted a shot at winning a second title with Penske before moving on to drive for Roush Fenway Racing as a co-owner, and Busch was upset he didn't advance with Hamlin and Truex.
"Any time you go into a season with Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing, this 18, M&M's team, myself, you expect to be championship four, in contention, eligible," Busch said. "Anything other than that is a failure. Guess (I) get an F."