Kyle Busch wins a wild day at Martinsville
By Rick Minter
NASCAR’s elimination-style playoff format was implemented to spice up the latter part of the season. The thinking was that the new rules would lead to drivers taking more chances and being more aggressive in pursuit of the coveted Monster Energy Cup championship.
But after a day of mayhem at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, one of the more aggressive drivers in the First Data 500 expressed regret at the move he made.
With three of the scheduled 500 laps remaining, playoff contenders Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott were battling for the win when Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville, wrecked Elliott to take the lead. Hamlin continued on, while Elliott dropped off the lead lap.
With one lap remaining, Hamlin lost the lead to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, whose victory assured him of being one of the four drivers who will compete for the Monster Energy Cup championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.
Points leader Martin Truex Jr. finished a close second to Busch, who led a race-high 184 laps en route to his fifth win of the season and his third in the seven playoff races run so far.
Clint Bowyer finished third, ahead of playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.
The race ended with a multi-car crash that littered the frontstretch with wrecked cars, but it was the incident between Elliott and Hamlin that had people buzzing after the race.
Elliott, who was poised to score his first-ever Cup victory after leading 123 laps, had the lead over Hamlin, who had overcome a penalty for speeding on pit road to take the second spot.
As the lead duo entered Turn Three, Hamlin rammed Elliott from behind, sending Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet slamming into the outside retaining wall.
Elliott dropped to 27th at the finish and fell to the bottom of the playoff standings. He’ll likely need a win this week at Texas Motor Speedway or next week at Phoenix Raceway to make the championship round at Homestead.
After the race, Elliott rammed Hamlin’s car into the wall on the cool-down lap, and the two exchanged words on the track. As that was transpiring, the crowd in the grandstands booed Hamlin, a fellow native of the Virginia commonwealth, and cheered Elliott.
Elliott said Hamlin simply wrecked him.
“I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn Three leading the race,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what [Hamlin’s] problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn’t raced him dirty all day long. … It is so disappointing. We had the best car I’ve ever had here at Martinsville. And had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead, and because of him, we don’t.”
Hamlin, who wound up finishing seventh and dropped to seventh in the standings, initially said the contact with Elliott was just hard racing and something that is to be expected with a potential championship at stake.
Later, Hamlin had a change of heart and posted an apology on Twitter.
It read in part: “Today was the first time I’ve ever spun the leader. I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out, but I’m responsible for my own car and I take the blame. … I hate that I’m now in the discussion as a guilty party, but I’ll move on and hope Chase, his team and fans will accept my apology.”
There were numerous other bumps and bangs on Sunday, though others chose not to participate in the fender banging.
Among them was Truex, the runner-up, who said he had a chance to move Busch out of the way at the end but decided that wouldn’t be a fair move.
“I didn’t want to be the one to knock him out of the way for the win,” Truex said. “Maybe I should have, but I don’t know. Those guys kept knocking each other out of the way up there in the front. I’m not sure that’s the way to do it.”