Kyle Busch victorious at Martinsville as things get wild

Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The temperatures might have been cold, but the tempers on track at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon in the First Data 500 were as hot as can be.

Kyle Busch was the lucky driver to escape with the grandfather clock from the 505-lap, overtime event that saw emotions run high, sheet metal torn, beating, banging and everything in between on Sunday. The win was Busch’s fifth win of the season and 43rd of his career. Now, he has a spot in this year’s final four.


PEEK-A-BOO

In his No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota Camry, Kyle Busch quietly put himself in position to win the race that would vault him into the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It wasn’t flashy–and it didn’t come without controversy–but he wound up with the checkered flag.

Busch restarted the green/white/checkered overtime session on the outside lane next to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin. Busch ultimately was forced to settle in behind the No. 11. But when the opportunity presented itself, Rowdy pounced—and capitalized.

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

“I wanted to get a better restart, pinch Denny down a little bit, but it actually kind of worked out better for me that he got ahead a little bit, gave me a gap,” Busch said to NBCSN post-race in Victory Lane after leading 184 laps. “I got down (to the inside lane), and he got into Turn 3 and just pushed up the race track and I knew I had to plug that hole right away because I was just going to get beat on from behind.

“So, I got up in there and rooted him out of the way a little bit, and we drag-raced down the front straightaway and deep into (Turn) 1. I just wheel-hopped, chattered the rear tires and it was sideways getting in there trying to calm it down with the brakes and everything else. Was able to get through there luckily somehow – I don’t know how—and beat (Martin) Truex (Jr.) off of (Turn) 4 back to the start/finish line.”


LOCKED INTO MIAMI

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

With the victory, Kyle Busch is now the only driver in NASCAR that knows with 100 percent certainty that a spot in the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway is his. He isn’t planning on relaxing for the next two weeks, but knowing that a mechanical failure or being at the wrong place at the wrong time won’t ruin your season is a nice luxury.

“Just really anxious, I guess, to race for a championship again and excited about that and being able to go to Homestead now and not necessarily have to fret over the next two weeks,” Busch said in the media center. “You know, we’ll focus on the next two weeks and being able to go race for wins still in order to kind of keep everybody on their toes and everybody worried about whether they’ll get through on points or not, but we’ll see what happens.”


THE FIELD

Following Kyle Busch across the finish line was Martin Truex Jr. in second place, tying his career-best finish on a short-track. Clint Bowyer was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver in third, with Brad Keselowski, who won both stages one and two, in fourth and Kevin Harvick in fifth.

Trevor Bayne, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rounded out the top 10 finishers, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez finishing inside the top 15. Some other notable finishers included Kurt Busch in 22nd, Joey Logano in 24th after a flat tire late, Chase Elliott in 27th (don’t worry, we’ll get to him) and Kyle Larson in 37th after slamming the backstretch wall in stage two.


ELLIOTT AND HAMLIN TANGLE

Nothing says “Homestead or bust” and “short track racing” like a bump and run for the win turned into a wreck. And that’s what we got in the closing stages on Sunday evening.

Chase Elliott, mere miles from his first career Cup Series victory, got the boot from hometown driver Denny Hamlin in turn three, sending the Dawsonville, Ga. native up into the wall. He saw his automatic bid into the championship four, his first career win and the monkey off his back go up in smoke and into the wall in an instant. And in his eyes, it was a blatant wreck from the Chesterfield, Va. driver.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

“I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race,” Elliott said, as the fans cheered him on. “I don’t know what his problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn’t raced him dirty all day long. There was no reason for that, and he comes over and talks to me a second ago and tells me he had somebody pushing him into Turn 3. I thought that was funny, because there was nobody within two car lengths of him into Turn 3 behind myself. I don’t know what the deal was, but 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.”

That’s the No. 24’s side of the story. Now how about the No. 11 of Hamlin’s?

“I got in the back of him and he spun out,” Hamlin said as boos rained down from the grandstands on him. “Trying to get a race win. But everyone wrecked everyone at the end there. It was complete bull**** chaos. I got into the back of him and he spun out, somebody got in the back of me and I wrecked too, it was a mess at the end.

“Everybody was doing the exact same thing. I hate it for his team. I understand they’ve had a win for a long time coming, but this is a ticket to Homestead. I’m not sitting here saying I wrecked him on purpose. I tried to move him out of the way and he spun out.”

It’s worth noting that the fans overwhelmingly cheered Elliott and booed Hamlin. This shows a couple things that I happen to agree with. Elliott is the most popular driver among the NASCAR fanbase (besides Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and Hamlin’s move was dirty. He also released a statement on Twitter after the race, which prompted various reactions from NASCAR fans worldwide. And one fan at the track even tried to fight him. Seriously…

https://twitter.com/dennyhamlin/status/924792019309998080

Photo: NBCSN

But it’s different than what Matt Kenseth did to Joey Logano in 2015 at Martinsville. That was payback for prior incidents. There was no prior history here, just what happened Sunday. And the two exchanged words on the backstretch after the race after making more contact on the cool down lap. Elliott’s lips can be read as saying “you wrecked me,” repeatedly, while Hamlin is trying to give his side of the story. Clearly, the 21-year-old was having none of it.

That’s another thing we haven’t seen out of Elliott: emotion. His countless second-place finishes emoted responses such as “Man, I just hate it for my guys,” or “we’ll get one of these soon,” and any other cliché, depressing answers you can think of. This was the first time we saw Chase Elliott get mad. And by God, I loved it. Was it racing? Sure. Was it dirty? Absolutely.


BLANEY AND HARVICK TALK IT OUT

The scuffle between Chase Elliot and Denny Hamlin, as well as the chaotic finish, grabbed most of the major headlines after the race ended—as they should’ve. But while all that was going on, a champion and a young gun had some beef to settle themselves.

Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney tangled multiple times throughout the race, most of which came during stage two when the longest green flag run of over 120 laps ensued. The No. 4 was on the No. 21’s bumper for a number of laps, and slight contact was repeatedly made.

Blaney also appeared to brake check Harvick exiting turn two in the final stage, and turn left onto the No. 4’s door down the frontstretch. After the race, the two sought each other out on pit road to discuss what went down around the 0.526-mile paperclip.

Photo: NASCAR.com

“I just told him, I said, ‘Look, if you’re going to park it at Martinsville, you’re going to get hit,’” Harvick said of his conversation with Blaney to NBCSN on pit road. “He didn’t like getting hit, and I didn’t like the cheap shots, the brake checks and the hitting down the straightaway. It’s like I told him, I said, ‘If you want to race hard and you want to run into me after I pass you, that’s fine, but slamming me down the straightaway and brake-checking me is another thing.’ That’s the easy way to race. Bent fenders, hurt feelings. I love it.”

Blaney, on the other hand, was rather short with his assessment of the incident(s), saying the two were “just talking about how the race was and what we could do to avoid it the next time.” Harvick and Blaney don’t have any prior history of on-track incidents in the Cup Series, but with everything on the line and so little time to get it done, this might not be the end of things.


THAT ENDING WAS … SOMETHING

Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Apparently, somebody forgot to tell the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field that Talladega Superspeedway was two weeks ago. Because when the checkered flag flew on the First Data 500, the frontstretch at Martinsville Speedway looked like a parking lot–another “Big One.”

To summarize a big wreck in a paragraph, Clint Bowyer nudged Denny Hamlin up the track in turn three. Hamlin attempted to get down in turn four, but Ryan Blaney was there. Chaos ensued, as cars were spinning, wrecking, crossing the finish line backwards–the front straightaway legitimacy looked like a parking lot. It was a sight to see for sure, and a more than fitting end to one of the wildest races we’ve seen in this year’s NASCAR playoffs.


SUN GOES DOWN, INTENSITY RATCHETS UP

To put it bluntly, this race was freaking awesome. It was one of the best races of the season, in my eyes, and gave NASCAR the shot in the arm it’s been looking—and waiting for—all season.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

These drivers weren’t giving an inch. See: Hamlin/Elliott, Harvick/Blaney and countless other battles that were side-by-side throughout the race deeper in the pack. It was some good ol’ short-track racing in the heart of Virginia with 40 of stock cars’ best. What more do you want?

Plus, Martinsville Speedway’s new LED lighting system got another tryout (it was used for a late model race earlier in the fall) and it passed with flying colors. The lights came on, and the racing took on a local short-track feel. That’s what we need in NASCAR. We need more of Sunday.

Unfortunately, the schedule can’t be realigned until 2021 at the earliest, and no more short tracks will be added. But we can hope for NASCAR brass to add more of them when the time comes. Because short tracks produce entertaining, hard nosed, back to the roots, compelling racing lap after lap after lap. Just like Sunday from Martinsville. Isn’t that what we want? I do.


WHAT’S NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will head to Texas Motor Speedway for the AAA Texas 500, the second race in the Round of 8 and the third-to-last race of the 2017 season. The NASCAR XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series will also be in action from the 1.5-mile quad-oval in Fort Worth next weekend. The green flag for Sunday’s MENCS race is scheduled to fly around 3:15 p.m. ET with television coverage on NBC.

Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are the three other drivers, along with Kyle Busch, who occupy the top four spots and possible advancement to Homestead-Miami Speedway. Harvick has the fourth and final transfer spot, and holds it by only three points over Jimmie Johnson, six over Ryan Blaney, eight over Denny Hamlin and 26 over Chase Elliott.