Martinsville was the hard rac­ing league wants to see

Rome News-Tribune - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Ham­lin loves Martinsville Speed­way, where he has won five times at a place he con­sid­ers one of his home tracks.

Yet when he was shown on the in­field big screen af­ter wreck­ing Chase El­liot, he was roundly booed. Yes, the guy from Vir­ginia was booed at his own track.

It took seven play­off races, but Martinsville fi­nally de­liv­ered some of the “sig­na­ture Game 7 mo­ments” that NAS­CAR Chair­man Brian France promised un­der this for­mat.

It was quin­tes­sen­tial NAS­CAR, though that is prob­a­bly not a pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment a day af­ter a crazy end­ing to Kyle Busch’s vic­tory in over­time at Martinsville.

Be­fore he col­lected the check­ered flag, Brad Ke­selowski had been moved out of the lead by El­liott. Then Ham­lin wrecked El­liott to send the race into over­time. If that wasn’t enough, Busch had to move team­mate Ham­lin out of his way to earn the win — and ba­si­cally half the field, in­clud­ing Ham­lin, wrecked as Busch crossed the fin­ish line.

So Busch got his ticket into NAS­CAR’s ver­sion of the Fi­nal Four — only four driv­ers will be el­i­gi­ble to race for the cham­pi­onship Nov. 19 at Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way — and the Martinsville vic­tory earned Busch one of the slots.

Re­al­iz­ing that a spot in the fi­nale was the prize on the line in those clos­ing laps is crit­i­cal to un­der­stand­ing why the ag­gres­sion level was so high. El­liott, in­creas­ingly frus­trated at falling short of vic­tory lane, used his car to chase Ham­lin af­ter the race and give him a hard hit. The two also had a heated ex­change on pit road af­ter, and El­liott used his arms to en­cour­age the crowd to un­leash its fury on Ham­lin.

Ham­lin was de­fen­sive af­ter the race be­cause, as he noted, a spot in the cham­pi­onship was on the line. Af­ter leav­ing the track, he re­con­sid­ered and apol­o­gized on so­cial me­dia to El­liott.

“I re­gret the out­come be­cause it was not in­ten­tional the way it turned out but I am re­spon­si­ble for my own car and take blame. Noth­ing I say now can turn back the clock,” he wrote in a long Twit­ter mes­sage.

The anger from El­liott over­shad­owed what could be a sim­mer­ing is­sue at Joe Gibbs Rac­ing, too.

Busch won his third race of th­ese play­offs at Ham­lin’s ex­pense and Ham­lin faded to a sev­enth-place fin­ish.

“I can’t judge it too much, I spun (El­liott) out,” Ham­lin said. “I didn’t think (Busch would) move me, but all’s fair in love and war when it comes to Home­stead.”

Then there’s Team Penske, where Ke­selowski had Martinsville as a must-win race for his cham­pi­onship chances. He might have won, too, and had pulled away from the pack late when team­mate Joey Logano de­vel­oped a tire rub.

Had Logano pit­ted un­der green to change the tire, Ke­selowski might have eas­ily won. In­stead, the Penske team didn’t call in Logano, the tire blew, he caused a cau­tion and El­liott took the lead from Ke­selowski on the restart.

“No team orders, not on with that one,” smiled Busch.

But Logano is not in the play­offs, doesn’t have a cham­pi­onship on the line and there was no rea­son for the team not to strate­gize

for Ke­selowski.

Like sev­eral other con­tenders, Busch was sur­prised that Logano didn’t pit, es­pe­cially since he could smell Logano’s tire “go from rub­ber to cords.”

“I think we’ve all got to be smarter for our com­pany, you know?” Busch said. “I think Logano lost his op­por­tu­nity, lost his chance to win. I think they’re not re­ally rac­ing for any­thing, if you will ... but when you’ve got to look at the greater good of the com­pany. I would like to ex­pect that our guys are smart enough to do that.”

It’s not been much of a play­offs so far for NAS­CAR: Toy­ota driv­ers Martin Truex Jr. and Busch have com­bined for six of the seven wins, and Truex is so strong, it would be a ma­jor up­set if he doesn’t claim a slot in Home­stead. So it’s a freefor-all out there the next two weeks, and win­ning is the only thing that mat­ters.

Steve Helber / AP

Kyle Busch cel­e­brates his vic­tory at Martinsville,Va.

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