Kyle Busch has taken victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway in one of the craziest finishes of the season so far. One of the fan-favourite drivers, Chase Elliott seemed on course to take his first win in the NASCAR Cup Series until late-race contact with Denny Hamlin put him into the wall and sparked post-race tensions between the pair.
Through all of the contact at the front, Busch in the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry was able to weave his way past it all to take his fifth win of the season, his third of the playoffs and more importantly, a spot in the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Busch now just has to focus on the winner-takes-all race in three weeks time, a race that could see him take his second Cup series championship.
“Awesome to get to victory lane here at Martinsville.” said Busch in victory lane, “Just wanted to say our guys did an awesome job preparing this car. We weren’t the best all day, but we put ourselves in the right spots there at the end and there was kind of chaos ensuing and none of it was our fault, we just came out on the right end of the stick.”
A string of late-race cautions – including one that saw pole-sitter Joey Logano spin out of contention with a puncture – set up a thrilling conclusion to the race at ‘the paperclip’. During the final round of pit-stops with under forty laps to go, Chase Elliott‘s #24 Hendrick Motorsports crew were able to get him out ahead of the pack for the closing stages of the race, with just millimetres separating him from Brad Keselowski‘s #2 Team Penske Ford Fusion on pit-exit.
A thrilling battle would take place soon after, with Keselowski and Elliott giving it everything they had in the battle for the lead of the race. Another caution would follow, with Elliott able to prise the lead away from Keselowski on the restart by running him up the race-track at turn three.
The pair’s fighting opened the door for Denny Hamlin to try and get by on the inside of Elliott for the lead, but Chase was able to just about close the door into turn one. Denny was still right on the bumper as the pair exited turn two, but turn three was when things got way too close. Hamlin got right into the back of Elliott’s bumper, with the hard contact sending Chase spinning into the outside wall, with all hopes of his maiden NASCAR Cup Series victory being dashed in that moment.
The caution would come out as Elliott’s #24 limped to the pits for repairs, setting up for a two-lap sprint to the finish. Hamlin would have the lead at the restart, but team-mate Kyle Busch wasn’t going to give up without a fight. The pair tussled for the lead, with Busch managing to push his way past to get into the lead, with Hamlin falling into the clutches of the pack behind.
With one to go, Busch suddenly had Martin Truex Jr for company. The #78 driver managed to get to the inside of the #18 for the lead, but Busch was able to drive the high-line around the final two corners of the race to stay clear of Truex’s potential challenge.
Behind the leading two, the chaos wasn’t done. Denny Hamlin got into some more contact, this time with the #21 of Ryan Blaney, with the pair triggering a massive pile-up on the exit of turn four. Through the chaos came the #14 of Clint Bowyer to take third place ahead of Keselowski’s #2 in fourth place and Kevin Harvick‘s #4 in fifth.
Trevor Bayne just managed to sneak into sixth in the #6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford; beating the entangled pair of Hamlin and Blaney as they wrecked across the line in seventh and eighth. Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr completed the top ten, with Dale Earnhardt Jr and playoff contender Jimmie Johnson just behind in eleventh and twelfth respectively. Johnson put in a sterling drive to come from the rear of the field to eleventh place, but he’ll have to hope for a strong race at Texas and Phoenix if he wants to try and defend his championship at Homestead.
Video courtesy of NASCAR on YouTube.
After another shot at victory slipped away in the closing laps, Chase Elliott‘s playoff hopes went from fantastic to awful really fast. After the incident with Hamlin, the #24 Hendrick Motorsport driver was only able to take twenty-seventh place, which would make him the lowest-placed playoff contender on the scoreboard. He showed his displeasure at having been denied a maiden victory and, with it, a championship four position, by ramming Denny Hamlin’s #11 Joe Gibbs Racing Camry after the chequered flag. The two got out of their cars soon after and had a heated discussion, but both were able to keep themselves from throwing fists.
Despite the fact that Hamlin was racing in front of his home fans, the Virginian crowd erupted with boos when he stepped out of the car post-race. After some reflection, Hamlin posted a statement on Twitter saying that he regretted the outcome as it “was not intentional” but he was “responsible for my own car and take blame.”
“Nothing I can say now can turn back the clock but it’s a life lesson and [I] hope no kids out there who aspire to race think that’s the way you should do it.” Hamlin’s tweet read, “It’s becoming normal in our sport now and I hate that I’m now in the discussion as a guilty party, but I’ll move on and hope Chase, his team and fans will accept my apology.”
Next weekend, the battle for remaining three places in the championship decider will heat up even further in the 2017 AAA Texas 500 at the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch’s win today at Martinsville has him guaranteed a spot in the championship final, with Martin Truex Jr also all but certain of a spot thanks to his points advantage at the moment. This leaves two spots remaining and six drivers trying to fill them, with just two races to stake their claim.
2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – First Data 500 – race results:
[table id=2657 /]
(P) = Playoff contender