USA TODAY US Edition
Truex clinches berth in Cup final
MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martin Truex Jr. was celebrating the victory that locked him into NASCAR’s title race when he heard the crowd roar, looked up at the big screen and saw two championship contenders jawing at each other on pit road.
“Oh, look, a fight,” the winner said. Indeed, Denny Hamlin was knocked to the ground in a confrontation with Joey Logano in the most intense action of an otherwise lackluster playoff Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Truex earned a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race for the third consecutive year by leading 464 of the 500 laps. He’s the first driver to claim one of the four spots in the Nov. 17 title race at Homestead Miami Speedway while leading the most laps in a win since Kyle Petty led 484 laps in 1992 at Rockingham.
There were just three lead changes, and Truex controlled the event from the first round of pit stops, when he beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin back onto the track for the lead. He was hardly challenged at all and his Toyota coasted to his first career victory at NASCAR’s shortest track.
“We’re going to Homestead again and that was what we tried to accomplish this weekend,” Truex said. “We don’t have to worry about points anymore. We can just get to work on our Homestead car.”
Martinsville marked the first of three races in the Round of Eight of the playoffs, where the field will be trimmed to a winner-take-all final four for the finale. Truex is locked in. Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Logano are above the cutline. Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and
Kyle Larson are the bottom four.
The next two rounds will be mustwin situations for Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, who suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure and finished 36th in the 38-car field. A victory earns a playoff driver an automatic berth into the final four.
For Truex, the win was redemption from a year ago at Martinsville when he raced Logano cleanly over the closing laps and Logano snatched the win away and then won the championship.
As Truex celebrated Sunday, the crowd focus turned to pit road, where Hamlin and Logano were having what appeared to be a civil conversation. Hamlin wagged his finger at Logano, then Logano placed his hand on Hamlin’s shoulder somewhat flippantly as he walked away. Hamlin chased after him, crew members got into the way and
Hamlin was knocked to the ground.
Hamlin said after it was how Logano typically handles confrontation. “It was civil and then like Joey does, he does a little push and then runs away. He said, ‘Do you want to go?’ I said ‘Yes, I’m here’ and then he runs away,” Hamlin said.
Logano said the incident stemmed from on-track contact when Hamlin shoved Logano into the wall and caused a cut tire.