Just one week on from a hugely controversial and dramatic conclusion to the Contender Round of the 2015 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, the Eliminator Round started in similar fashion with a chaotic race at Martinsville which saw Jeff Gordon prevail for a hugely popular and emotional victory whilst the rivalry between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth hit crazy new heights.
A chaotic race is not unusual for the old-skool half-mile racetrack, with races there often being tough slugfests due to it’s nature as a flat short track. And we certainly had a lot of old-skool beating and banging, incidents, and bent bodywork and egos after a bruising 500 laps in Virginia which ended in near darkness due to a later start time, poor weather before race start and the track having no floodlights. A Jeff Gordon victory against the odds here is something we’ve come to expect, too, and this performance was vintage Gordon – under pressure, without a single race victory in his 2015 farewell tour but still with a chance to go for a final championship tilt before retirement, coming good in a tough race and fending off all comers, including a resurgent AJ Allmendinger, Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin all in the final 50 laps alone. The #24 Chevrolet was never far from the front all day, and the fact his car had barely a mark on it as the jubilant celebrations began shows that the evergreen legend hasn’t slowed down a jot in a staggeringly successful career.
It’s a shame then, that for such a hugely popular win for one of the sport’s all-time greats, it won’t be the main lingering memory of this race.
What will be was the moment where, for the third race in a row, a driver took matters into his own hands to dictate the outcome of a Chase race. And it says a lot that this incident somehow managed to top the lot in terms of jaw-dropping controversy.
Logano had dominated large chunks of the race up until lap 434, where on a restart, he and team-mate Brad Keselowski attempted to smoothly fall into single file as they had done on previous starts – except this time it backfired badly, leading to Keselowski banging wheels with Kenseth coming off Turn 2, loosing control, and both cars spinning and snagging Kurt Busch in the ensuing melee. All three cars to the garage, and race over for them – or so we assumed.
On lap 454, Logano once again had a comfortable lead, and went to lap Kenseth’s limping car, 10 laps down at this point – at which point Kenseth drove straight into Logano’s car, slamming him into the Turn 3 wall and appearing to not even slow down going into the corner. It was a move you’d expect to see on a bad night at Bowman Gray Stadium, or in a destruction derby showdown – not in the premier division of stock car racing, and not from a normally quietly reserved and classy former series champ like Kenseth.
Some fans in the grandstands exploded into cheers, in a manner USA Today reporter Jeff Gluck described as ‘reminiscent of a popular WWE wrestler running down the ramp and jumping into the ring, then taking out the bad guy with a chair to the head.’ Others shook their heads in disbelief. We’ve seen payback, hard racing and intentional contact before; this is the sport that coined the phrase ‘boys, have at it’ – but what we saw at Martinsville was the ne plus ultra of this entire mantra. Drivers past and present didn’t hold back in post-race analysis: Kyle Petty describing the incident on NBC as ‘utter BS – we don’t need to be a joke, this makes NASCAR look like a joke’, and Kenseth’s teammate Hamlin noting that “It’s a no-holds-barred wild, wild West. Sure, when people crown the statement that a driver’s doing what he’s got to do and they became OK with that statement, you’re just opening up Pandora’s box. Everyone is just doing what they have to do I guess. It’s a bad statement. It’s an ugly statement.”
At time of writing, no penalty has been issued yet against any drivers – although NASCAR’s decision is forthcoming on Tuesday. After a race which also saw Danica Patrick get into an ugly scrap with David Gilliland, this was the moment NASCAR was forced to look at itself in the mirror. When Brian France described Logano’s move on Kenseth two weeks ago in Kansas as ‘quintessential NASCAR’, no-one could’ve quite guessed just what impact those words would prove to have. I doubt what transpired on Sunday would get quite the same approval from the Chairman.