In a wild overtime finish that took Sunday’s First Data 500 to 505 laps at the .526-mile short track, Kyle Busch beat Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader Martin Truex Jr. to the stripe by .141 seconds to take the checkered flag and earn a spot in the Nov. 19 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
As Busch crossed the finish line, a multi-car wreck behind him scrambled the running order and left a parking lot of mangled cars on the frontstretch.
But that was simply the final act in a drama that saw a succession of Playoff contenders lose excellent chances to win the first event in the Round of 8.
Chase Elliott held the lead with three laps left in regulation distance when Denny Hamlin dumped Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet in Turn 3, causing the 11th caution and sending the race into overtime.
Ten laps earlier, Brad Keselowski appeared headed for victory and a guaranteed ticket to Homestead before Joey Logano developed a severe tire rub after contact from Busch’s No. 18 Toyota in Turn 1.
Logano spun off Ryan Blaney’s front bumper when the tire went flat in Turn 2, and Elliott grabbed the lead after the restart on Lap 497, with Hamlin following. Hamlin punted Elliott a lap later, and hard feelings continued after the race, with Elliott running Hamlin’s Toyota into the outside wall on the cool-down lap.
Elliott’s wreck set the stage for Busch to win for the second time at Martinsville, the fifth time this season and the 43rd time in his career. After Hamlin cleared Busch on the overtime restart, Busch cut to the inside and wheel-hopped into Hamlin’s Camry, forcing his JGR teammate up the track.
Hamlin fell to seventh at the finish behind Clint Bowyer in third, Keselowski in fourth, Kevin Harvick in fifth and Trevor Bayne in sixth.
“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. “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 cause 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 Truex off of (Turn) 4 back to the start/finish line.”
Truex retained the series lead by 17 points over Busch. Elliott, on the other hand went from likely winner to major casualty in the space of one corner, finishing 27th and falling 26 points below the cut line for the Championship 4, with the cut coming in two weeks at Phoenix.
“I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race,” Elliott said. “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.”
Keselowski is third in the standings, followed by Harvick, who holds a three-point edge over Jimmie Johnson, who ran 12th on Sunday. Blaney is six points behind Harvick and Hamlin is eight back, all but guaranteeing another wild race next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway as the fight for the Championship 4 positions intensifies.
Notes: Busch led a race-high 184 laps, followed by Elliott (123) and Keselowski (108)… Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th in his final run at Martinsville in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet… After finishing under lights installed this year, Bowyer would like to see a night race at Martinsville. “We should definitely utilize those lights for something other than an (overtime), because it’s pretty damn cool under the lights,” Bowyer said.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!