Alex Bowman wins as tension builds ahead of NASCAR title race

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Martinsville, Va. — The desperation of NASCAR’s playoffs erupted Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where non-playoff driver Alex Bowman spun Denny Hamlin to set up an overtime victory in a wild finish for the final spot in the championship finale.

Hamlin led 103 laps and was out front with six to go when Bowman, who was not eligible to move on to the championship, wiggled and bumped Hamlin out of his way. It sent the race into overtime and Bowman held off Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski (Rochester Hills) to win.

Denny Hamlin (11) impedes Alex Bowman's (48) celebration after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia.

The victory by Bowman prevented one of the other playoff drivers from winning the race and locking up a slot in next Sunday in the winner-take-all championship at sold-out Phoenix Raceway. A victory by Busch or Keselowski would have pushed either into the finale.

Kyle Larson, reigning champion Chase Elliott, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. will race for the title in a matchup of a pair of Chevrolets from Hendrick Motorsports against a pair of Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Ford was locked out of the championship when Keselowski and Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano failed to advance.

It was Bowman’s fourth win of the season and he hoped to celebrate with a backward victory lap around NASCAR’s oldest and shortest speedway. But a furious Hamlin drove his Toyota to the frontstretch celebration and blocked the Hendrick Chevrolet from doing proper doughnuts.

Bowman insisted the contact with Hamlin was accidental.

“I just got loose in, I got in too deep, knocked him out of the way and literally let him have the lead back,” Bowman said. “For anybody that wants to think I was trying to crash him, that obviously literally wasn’t that case considering I gave up the lead at Martinsville to give it back to him.”

But Bowman was referring to an earlier incident, not the contact that fully spun Hamlin’s car and dropped him to a 24th-place finish.

“He’s been on the other side of that. He’s crashed guys here for wins. I hate doing it… I just got in, got underneath him, spun him out,” Bowman said. “Regardless, we get a free grandfather clock, which is pretty special.”

Martinsville presents its race winners with a traditional grandfather clock considered one of the most coveted trophies in NASCAR.

Hamlin already has five clocks, and still advanced into the championship on points. But he was incensed with Bowman, and Hamlin’s crew warned him over the radio to be smart as he drove his Toyota directly to the front grille of Bowman’s Chevy.

“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 did not have the home-crowd support. The well-filled grandstands erupted in cheers when Bowman spun Hamlin, and loudly booed him when he was interviewed over the public-address system.

Either way, he advanced and will try for a fourth time to win his first Cup title. Both he and Larson, the heavy favorite and a nine-race winner, have never won a NASCAR championship. Elliott is the reigning champion and Truex, who had to claw for every on-track position Sunday to stop teammate Busch from bumping him out of the finale, has one previous title.

Up next: The championship finale Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where Elliott won the race last year to claim his first Cup championship. Truex won in March.