Martinsville Speedway’s First Data 500 marked the start of the Round of 8. With three races until the Championship Round, eight drivers sought to punch their tickets to Homestead. As the laps waned, Chase Elliott appeared to be in prime position to score his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. Instead, a late restart resulted in chaos as he was spun by Denny Hamlin, with a wild overtime finish culminating in Kyle Busch taking the win.
Like Pocono in July, qualifying and the race were held on Sunday. Joey Logano won the pole and started alongside Martin Truex Jr., while Jimmie Johnson spun and was forced to change tires, relegating him to the back. Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Paul Menard joined Johnson at the rear for the green flag. As Logano led early, Johnson quickly made his way up the field; by lap ten, he was in 29th. By lap 28, Logano began facing lapped traffic.
On lap 35, Ty Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun in turn one to bring out the caution. The yellow flag served as the originally-scheduled lap 45 competition caution. Logano and Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski won the race off pit road to lead the field to the restart on lap 44. Five laps later, Keselowski passed Logano for the lead.
Another caution occurred on lap 61 when David Ragan spun in turn four, with Stenhouse rebounding from his earlier spin by receiving the free pass. The restart took place on lap 68; after pressuring his teammate, Logano finally claimed 1st on lap 79. Eight laps later, A.J. Allmendinger collided with Danica Patrick and spun. Logano and a number of cars pitted, enabling Johnson to take the lead upon staying out along with seven other drivers. As a result, Johnson led the grid to the green flag on lap 93 alongside teammate Kasey Kahne. Keselowski charged up the top ten and was 2nd by lap 110, making the pass on Johnson for 1st three laps later. Keselowski would win Stage #1, with Ky. Busch, Logano, Johnson, Truex, Elliott, Blaney, Kahne, Austin Dillon, and Hamlin behind him. Kevin Harvick, who finished 13th, was the lone playoff driver to not receive stage points.
Ky. Busch and Keselowski comprised the front row for the start of Stage #2 on lap 139, while Hamlin was penalized for speeding on pit road. After just four laps, Busch held a .587-second lead over Keselowski. As Busch continued to lead, Hamlin fell out of the top 20 due to his penalty, though Busch saw his lead dissipate when he reached lapped cars. When the race reached the 200-lap mark, Keselowski and Busch began their battle for the lead. While Keselowski fell back after 15 laps, further lapped traffic hindered Busch’s progress. With two laps before the end of Stage #2, Keselowski made his move on Busch to take the lead and record his second stage win of the day. As Busch was forced to settle for 2nd, behind the two were Logano, Truex, Elliott, Blaney, Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, and Johnson. Hamlin recovered from his speeding penalty to finish 12th.
Stage #3 commenced on lap 271 with Busch and Keselowski leading the way. As Busch built his lead, all eight playoff drivers were in the top ten by lap 297. Five laps later, Kyle Larson spun on the backstretch as he attempted to fight a tight car off turn two. The restart came on lap 313, lasting just three laps until Erik Jones spun in turn four after hitting Jamie McMurray. The track’s lights, which were implemented earlier in the year, turned on for the restart on lap 320. Elliott took the lead on lap 324 as Busch began dropping. By lap 330, Elliott’s lead over 2nd-placed Logano was .648 seconds.
Keselowski passed Logano for 2nd on lap 338; by lap 354, Keselowski caught up to Elliott. On lap 360, Ragan made contact with teammate Landon Cassill in turn four, spinning the latter and causing the yellow flag to be put out. During pit stops, Elliott dropped three places as Keselowski became the new leader for the lap 367 restart. Despite restarting behind the #2, the #24 proved to be fast as Elliott chased down Keselowski and passed him on lap 386. As the race entered the 400s, Elliott had built a large lead over Keselowski, who was left fighting with Ky. Busch to maintain 2nd. Lapped traffic once again played a factor when Elliott saw his momentum shrink.
On lap 453, nine-time Martinsville winner Johnson went a lap down, though he reclaimed it four laps later when Carl Long spun in turn three. Elliott and Keselowski led the field to the restart on lap 464, with the latter applying pressure on the #24 by giving him bumps. Keselowski took the lead on lap 471, but Elliott was not willing to give up his position so easily. A tight car caused Elliott to let off Keselowski as he was forced to deal with Logano.
While racing Elliott, Logano made contact with Busch, causing smoke to come out of the #22. As Logano fell, his tire gave in with nine laps remaining and went down as he exited turn two, spinning him and bringing out the tenth caution on lap 491.
A restart came with four to go. Keselowski led until he was forced wide in the turn by Elliott, which placed the #24 in the perfect spot to win his first career Cup race provided he could hold off Denny Hamlin.
That was not the case. A lap later, Hamlin clipped Elliott in turn three, spinning him into the outside wall. The caution came out as the race entered overtime conditions. A restart took place on lap 503 with Hamlin and Busch on the front row. After Hamlin led the first of two overtime laps, Busch passed him in a side-by-side battle and successfully held off his teammate and Truex for the win. Behind Busch and Truex, Hamlin got loose exiting turn four and spun into the pack, causing a pile-up that collected multiple drivers as they slid across the start/finish line. Amidst the wreck, Bowyer took 3rd, followed by Keselowski, Harvick, Trevor Bayne, Hamlin, Blaney, Kenseth, and Stenhouse.
After the race, Elliott drove his car into Hamlin’s, pinning the #11 against the wall. Upon exiting, the two exchanged words before separating. On pit road, Hamlin was confronted by a fan, who was escorted away.
“It was definitely unnecessary and uncalled for,” Elliott stated; he finished 27th. “[Hamlin’s] not even worth my time.”
“I’ve raced nearly 10,000 races since I was 7. Today was the first time I’ve ever spun the leader. I regret the outcome because it was not intentional the way it turned out but I’m responsible for my own car and take blame,” Hamlin said in a tweet. “Nothing I can say now can turn back the clock but it’s a life lesson and hope no kids out there who aspire to race thinks that’s the way you should do it.”
The win is Busch’s 43rd in the Cup Series and second at Martinsville. With the victory, the 2015 champion is in the Championship Round for the third consecutive season.
“Great win here today at Martinsville. We put ourselves in the right spot in the end, and there was just chaos unfolding and we took advantage,” Busch commented. “Just looking forward to going to Homestead. We can go out and race for wins and let everybody else have to worry.”
Next week, the Cup Series travels to Fort Worth, home of Texas Motor Speedway, for the AAA Texas 500. The now-retired Carl Edwards is the defending winner.
Featured image by @NASCAR