Martinsville, Va. — Denny Hamlin loves Martinsville Speedway, where he has won five times at a place he considers one of his home tracks. Yet when he was shown on the infield big screen after wrecking Chase Elliot, he was roundly booed.
Yes, the guy from Virginia was booed at his own track.
It took seven playoff races, but Martinsville finally delivered some of the “signature Game 7 moments” that NASCAR Chairman Brian France promised under this format.
It was quintessential NASCAR, though that is probably not a popular sentiment a day after a crazy ending to Kyle Busch’s victory in overtime at Martinsville.
Before he collected the checkered flag, Rochester Hills’ Brad Keselowski had been moved out of the lead by Elliott. Then Hamlin wrecked Elliott to send the race into overtime. If that wasn’t enough, Busch had to move teammate Hamlin out of his way to earn the win — and basically half the field, including Hamlin, wrecked as Busch crossed the finish line.
So Busch got his ticket into NASCAR’s version of the Final Four — only four drivers will be eligible to race for the championship Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway — and the Martinsville victory earned Busch one of the slots.
Realizing that a spot in the finale was the prize on the line in those closing laps is critical to understanding why the aggression level was so high. Elliott, increasingly frustrated at falling short of victory lane, used his car to chase Hamlin after the race and give him a hard hit. The two also had a heated exchange on pit road after, and Elliott used his arms to encourage the crowd to unleash its fury on Hamlin.
Hamlin was defensive after the race because, as he noted, a spot in the championship was on the line. After leaving the track, he reconsidered and apologized on social media to Elliott.
“I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out but I am responsible for my own car and take blame. Nothing I say now can turn back the clock,” he wrote in a long Twitter message.
The anger from Elliott overshadowed what could be a simmering issue at Joe Gibbs Racing, too.
Busch won his third race of these playoffs at Hamlin’s expense and Hamlin faded to a seventh-place finish.
“I can’t judge it too much, I spun (Elliott) out,” Hamlin said. “I didn’t think (Busch would) move me, but all’s fair in love and war when it comes to Homestead.”
Then there’s Team Penske, where Keselowski had Martinsville as a must-win race for his championship chances. He might have won, too, and had pulled away from the pack late when teammate Joey Logano developed a tire rub.
Had Logano pitted under green to change the tire, Keselowski might have easily won. Instead, the Penske team didn’t call in Logano, the tire blew, he caused a caution and Elliott took the lead from Keselowski on the restart.
“No team orders, not on with that one,” smiled Busch.
But Logano is not in the playoffs, doesn’t have a championship on the line and there was no reason for the team not to strategize for Keselowski.
Like several other contenders, Busch was surprised that Logano didn’t pit, especially since he could smell Logano’s tire “go from rubber to cords.”
“I think we’ve all got to be smarter for our company, you know?” Busch said. “I think Logano lost his opportunity, lost his chance to win. I think they’re not really racing for anything, if you will … but when you’ve got to look at the greater good of the company. I would like to expect that our guys are smart enough to do that.”
It’s not been much of a playoffs so far for NASCAR: Toyota drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Busch have combined for six of the seven wins, and Truex is so strong, it would be a major upset if he doesn’t claim a slot in Homestead. So it’s a free-for-all out there the next two weeks, and winning is the only thing that matters.
Fans may not have liked the way it went down at Martinsville if the desire was to root for Keselowski or Elliott or Hamlin or someone else, but that’s the kind of racing this system was intended to create. Drivers are supposed to want to win races, not settle for a good points day, and that’s the kind of racing that was displayed at Martinsville.
If you didn’t like it, then what exactly is the point of racing at all?