Joey Logano's championship bid ended in the pits on a miserable stop. Denny Hamlin coughed up his shot on a gamble that went bust. Ryan Newman's ferocious rally from an early deficit was one spot short.
Kevin Harvick was the class of NASCAR's final four and won the Sprint Cup championship Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The other three have to wait at least another year.
Newman, winless on the season, was second. Hamlin was seventh, and Logano finished 16th.
Logano and Hamlin drove like championship drivers for the bulk of the race until mistakes in the closing laps cost them a legitimate push that could haunt the drivers for years.
Joe Gibbs Racing decided not to pit Hamlin when a debris caution came out with 20 laps remaining. Hamlin stayed out, leaving him without the fresh tires needed to catch Harvick.
"I don't know, I thought we could have beat them on pit road," Hamlin said over the radio.
He'll never know for sure.
"We were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming," Hamlin said. "We had a decent lead. The cautions just didn't come our way."
Logano had a fantastic car and was running inside the top 10 when the pit crew had a jack issue with the No. 22 Ford. Logano, in his second season driving for Roger Penske, saw his championship chance destroyed. He plummeted from sixth to 21st and had no time to recover.
"I'm not going to say it was pressure," Logano said. "We knew coming into this race you can't afford to make one mistake. Our pit crew did a fantastic job this year. I'm not putting them down over one thing."
Newman's finish spared NASCAR the embarrassment of stamping this season with a winless champion. NASCAR chairman Brian France said Friday the series would "be delighted" if Newman somehow defied the model that preached winning above all and won the championship.
Trying to win owner Richard Childress his seventh title, Newman saved his best driving of the season for the last race of the season after starting 21st.
"Our sport would have been better if the four of us were on the front two rows," Newman said. "But in the end, I was one of the guys that had a shot at it, and I was happy to be in that position. But man, you live for that moment and you drive as hard as you can."
NASCAR seemed poised to have all four cars make a mad championship dash for the checkered flag until the final 20 laps.
Newman was the caboose when the contenders lined up second through fifth behind early leader Jeff Gordon. Like a short-track speedskater, Newman could have used a wreck to wipe out the cars in front of him to take the lead. Newman had the speed in the No. 31 to zip into the top five, just not the breaks needed to play catch up.
Logano had his sixth win of the season in range when he zipped past Harvick and Newman to move into second place early on.
But he ran into his first issue when his Ford slapped the wall midway through the race, though he stayed on the track. But a dropped lugnut on the first pit stop miscue late in the race sent Logano to 11th.
"We still have a shot at this, pick your heads up," crew chief Todd Gordon said.
With 28 laps left, the drivers were bunched nose-to-tail in pairs: Hamlin and Harvick ran second and third; Newman and Logano were seventh and eighth.
All the drama NASCAR wanted with its new win-or-bust format materialized for the thrilling finale.
But they all knew three drivers had to head home without a trophy.
"We had a car that was capable of winning today," Hamlin said. "We know that."