The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway next weekend has been settled, but not before a bit of controversy ended the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
One of the drivers who made the field, Denny Hamlin, should have been happy about it. However, he had some choice words for the race winner, Alex Bowman, whose only ambition was to take home the prized Grandfather’s clock. Bowman “The Showman” had already been eliminated earlier in the playoffs.
Kyle Larson had already claimed one of the spots in the Cup Series Championship 4, and, having already banked a pair of wins in the Round of 8, his eye was on the prize of the coveted Grandfather’s clock trophy. After sweeping both stages, his teammate, Chase Elliott, locked in on points, leaving just two openings for the six remaining contenders. He would lead a race-high 289 laps.
In the final caution-filled laps, Hamlin kept holding off several challenges, including a pestering Bowman. With under 20 to go, the two were close enough where they could trade paint, and Bowman’s No. 48 Camaro got loose and sent Hamlin into a spin and out of contention for the victory. He ended up in P24 but had banked enough points to secure a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 field anyway.
Instead of enjoying his chance to win his first premier series title, he chased Bowman down, bumping him until each car would be grille-to-grille. Bowman didn’t take the bait and went on to celebrate while Hamlin fired off the following barb:
“He's just a hack. Just an absolute hack. He gets his a** kicked by his teammates every week. He's (expletive) terrible. He's just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it. I mean, we got in, do what we had to do. I just wanted to race there at the end. He's just terrible.”
Bowman seemed to take the high road in describing what happened, saying:
“Man, I wasn't going to get into it (about a confrontation with Hamlin). This isn't Bowman Gray Stadium (a legendary short track in North Carolina). This is the Cup Series. I just got loose underneath. I'm not trying to drive underneath there and crash the guy. I got under him fair, under him clean. I just got sideways underneath him, spun him out. Hate to do that. Obviously unintentional. Part of short-track racing.”
Bad blood aside, it was a day for those who now have a chance at etching their names in the NASCAR record book.
The final man to make the cut was Martin Truex Jr. He had to fight through overheating issues, some front-end damage, and putting more hurt on his No. 19 Toyota after hitting the wall down the stretch.
NASCAR Xfinity 500 prerace notes
• Kyle Larson started the day as the only driver locked into the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 after back-to-back victories to open the Round of 8. He should head to Phoenix Raceway as the top seed as he entered Sunday with a 35-playoff point advantage over Denny Hamlin (65-30). Hamlin’s No. 11 Camry failed a pre-race inspection twice and started at the rear. 18 others failed the first time through but were cleared on their second pass.
• Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are the only championship-eligible drivers who have not recorded a win at Martinsville Speedway in any of the three national series.
• Stages are 130/260/500 with a competition caution at Lap 60. Each team was assigned nine sets of tires. Manufacturers in the field: Chevrolet (18), Ford (14), and Toyota (6).
• Christopher Bell has lead engineer Tyler Allen calling the shots atop the box because his crew chief, Adam Stevens, was suspended for the Xfinity 500. Bell’s No. 20 Toyota had two loose/missing lugs following last week’s race at Kansas.
How the Cup Series Championship 4 elimination race played out
Lap 1 of 500 (263 miles): Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson (pole – nine victories, 17 stage wins) and defending champion Chase Elliott (two victories, four stage wins) led a field of 38 cars to the green flag at 2:13 pm ET. By Lap 10, Larson had opened up a nearly one-second advantage over Martin Truex Jr. The only non-contender in the top ten was Kurt Busch in P7.
Lap 56: Larson led throughout until Elliott passed him uncontested. Competition Caution on Lap 60 with the top-10 runners being Elliott, Larson, Truex, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, and Austin Dillon. Hamlin, starting from the back, is up to P17. Unfortunately, he was speeding on pit row and will again go to the back of the lead lap cars. Restarting on Lap 68, Larson regained the top spot.
Lap 72: Caution for Ryan Newman's spin in Turn 4. Michael McDowell and Daniel Suarez suffered damage as the cars stacked up. Matt DiBenedetto and Justin Haley have tire rubs. Restart Lap 77. Elliott passes Larson again at 85. Truex, Byron and Keselowski round out the top five. Austin Dillon contacted Blaney in the left rear, tearing it up, but there's no tire rub.
Lap 130: End Stage 1. Chase Elliott scores his third Martinsville stage win and fifth of the season. He was followed by Larson, Truex, Byron, Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Auston Dillon, Bowman, Logano, and Aric Almirola. Playoff standings at this point: Larson (clinched), Elliott (+38), Hamlin (+26), Truex and Kyle Busch (0), Keselowski (-5), Blaney (-6), Logano (-29).
Race off pit row: Larson (+1), Elliott (-1), Truex, Kyle Busch (+2), Keselowski, Byron (-2), Logano (+2), Bell (+3), Almirola (+1), and Kevin Harvick (+3). All took four tires and fuel. Larson was caught speeding in the same section as Hamlin and will restart on Lap 141 in P22.
Lap 198: Caution. Austin Dillon into the wall. Top 10: Elliott, Truex, Byron, Bowman, Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Bell, Hamlin, Harvick, and Almirola. Race off pit row: Truex (+1), Elliott (-1), Byron, Bowman, Kyle Busch (+2), Bell (+2), Keselowski (-1), Harvick (+2), Hamlin, and Larson (+2). All take four tires. Tyler Reddick to the rear for speeding. Restart Lap 204 with Truex on the inside line. Elliott grabs the lead and opens a half-second advantage. Blaney (-31) and Logano (-52) are at the bottom of the playoff standings.
Lap 260: End Stage 2 just past halfway: Elliott sweeps both stages. He was followed by Bowman, Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Almirola, Bell, Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch. Hendrick Motorsports takes the top three spots. With his second stage win of the afternoon, Chase Elliott is locked in for the Cup Series Championship 4 and will get a chance to defend his title.
Six drivers will now vie for the final two spots. Hamlin (+41) and Truex (+13) are above the cut line. Kyle Busch took a hit with a speeding penalty during pit stops and was the last car on the lead lap in P20, dropping him below the cut line. He needs a lot of help now.
Lap 311: Caution. Josh Bilicki ends up in the Turn 3 wall after being hooked by Corey Lajoie. Austin Dillon is the free pass, and 21 cars are now on the lead lap. Leaders pit. Bubba Wallace to the rear for speeding. Race off pit row: Biggest gainer was Hamlin picking up two spots to P2.
Elliott and Hamlin will take the green flag at the Lap 319 restart, but Quin Houff spins out in Turn 3 for another caution on Lap 324. Houff adds to his woes by being held five laps for spinning Bilicki in retaliation near the safety car. The top ten are Elliott, Bowman, Hamlin, Truex, Almirola, Byron, Bell, Larson, Buescher, and Ricky Stenhouse. Restart Lap 330.
Lap 340: Cautions breed cautions in short-track racing, and the eighth of the day was courtesy of Ross Chastain and Ryan Newman. Cole Custer also suffered damage. Restart Lap 346, and Logano, needing a win to advance, is up to P3. Truex is having overheating problems while maintaining the final transfer spot. A non-contact spin by Cole Custer gives Truex a break with a Lap 359 caution. Chase Elliott remains the leader. Restart with 138 to go.
Lap 379: Caution for Daniel Suarez's spin. All leaders pit. Race off pit row: Elliott, Truex (+1), Hamlin (+2), Byron, Logano (+3), Kyle Busch (+3), Almirola (+3), Bowman (-6), Larson (-3), Bell (+1). Austin Dillon and Truex led the field to the Lap 385 restart.
With 112 to go, Hamlin takes the lead as well as the first remaining Cup Series Championship 4 opening. Truex, running P2, has the final transfer spot, +13 on Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Blaney and Logano need a miracle. With pit stops at 379, fuel should not be an issue if the race stays green the rest of the way. However, most teams are down to one set of tires in the pits should there be another caution.
Lap 437: Caution No. 11 for Austin Dillon losing a tire and slamming the wall. He was running P6 when it happened. The leaders came in for their last set of tires with little change in the race off pit row. After passing the choose cone, Hamlin and Bowman will lead the field to the restart. Elliott and Truex are on Row 2, with Keselowski and Byron next in line. Restart with 53 to go, with Hamlin and Truex holding down the last two Championship 4 spots.
50 to go: Truex suffers significant front-end damage and drops from second to P5. Meanwhile, Keselowski spun out Elliott for yet another caution on Lap 456. Truex could not afford to come in for repairs because if he did, he could lose his advantage over Kyle Busch, who is just six points behind in the final spot. On the restart, Ricky Stenhouse spins, Elliott adds a few more dents to his No. 9, and Bubba Wallace damages his No 23 for another stoppage in action on lap 462.
Restart with 34 to go, and things get tense. Desperately trying to limp to the end, Truex hit the wall just as Keselowski moved into P2. Hamlin was still the points leader, but suddenly Kyle Busch was in the green +1 ahead of Keselowski and Truex. During the restart, Busch moved to P3 with 20 to go. Busch, Truex and Keselowski are now in a three-car race for the coveted final spot.
There was another storyline developing: Hamlin was being challenged by Bowman, who had nothing to gain but winning the Grandfather’s clock. Suddenly, tiebreaker scenarios were coming into play. That was put aside for a moment when Bowman got loose and clipped the left quarter-panel of Hamlin, spinning him out in Turn 3. Caution again and everything was up in the air as overtime loomed.
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Hamlin had banked enough points to lock in so it would come down to the final two laps. Bowman proved to have the best car and would take the checkers, which put Truex in and Kyle Busch out.