Martinsville’s chaos stages a championship battle between Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing at NASCAR’s 2021 finale next weekend.
Hendrick Motorsports won Martinsville’s battle. But Joe Gibbs Racing has a chance to win Phoenix’s war.
Alex Bowman of the No. 48 HMS Chevrolet crashed the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff party at Martinsville Speedway’s Xfinity 500 on Sunday afternoon. Bowman’s fourth victory of the season came with a hint of controversy, as his winning move made contact with Denny Hamlin, sending the latter’s No. 11 Gibbs Toyota spinning into the wall with seven circuits remaining in the 50-lap event. The late incident required a two-lap overtime finish, which saw Bowman hold off a furious push from Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, each of whom needed to win to advance to the final four.
Hamlin nonetheless clinched a spot in the Cup Series’ Championship 4, an illustrious quartet that will race for a title at Phoenix Raceway in next Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBC). He’ll be joined by JGR teammate and 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who overcame late damage to his No. 19 Toyota to finish fourth and clinch his own spot.
HMS Chevrolets account for the rest of the group: defending series champion Chase Elliott finished 16th after contact with Keselowski but made it in through victories over the first two race stages. Kyle Larson (14th) had already clinched his Phoenix ticket with wins at the first two Round of 8 races at Texas and Kansas.
Hamlin was visibly displeased with Bowman, menacingly driving up to him as the No. 48 engaged in its victory burnout. He later called Bowman a “hack” in his postrace interview with NBC Sports.
The eliminated Busch and Keselowski finished second and third respectively while another Hendrick Chevy, the No. 24 of William Byron, rounded out the top five. Busch finished three points short of advancement Keselowski’s Team Penske teammates Joey Logano (10th) and Ryan Blaney (11th) likewise saw their championship dreams end.
The Greatest Showman
Bowman was eliminated after the Round of 12, as his postseason output has been tough to bear. Entering Sunday’s event, Bowman had only one top-five finish over the first eight playoff races (fifth at Bristol) and led only a single lap in that span,
This Martinsville triumph allowed him to cap off his first season piloting the legendary No. 48 car on the right note. Behind the wheel of the ride Jimmie Johnson drove to seven Cup Series titles, Bowman has earned career-bests in nearly every major stat category, primarily his aforementioned win total (he had two wins entering the 2021 season).
“These last couple of months have been painful. Itâ€™s been so frustrating,” Bowman admitted. “Honestly, our teammates have kicked our butts for quite a while now. I think Greg and myself have both been pretty down and frustrated…We werenâ€™t doing things any differently. We werenâ€™t approaching weekends differently. We just have been off.”
“To come to a place that was probably our worst place when we started together, have such a good day, get another win, it feels great,” he continued. “Obviously, four wins this year feels great. Wish we were in the Round of 4. We just need to figure out consistency and this team will be something really, really special.”
Bowman ran behind his teammates over the first 130-lap stages, finishing in the runner-up spot to Elliott in the latter. He lingered near the front during the third stage, the only delay coming on a slow pit stop when the leaders pitted at lap 380 during a caution induced by Daniel Suarez’s spin. The No. 48 quickly worked its way back up and competed with Hamlin for the win over the final stages.
Bowman continued to insist that the contact with Hamlin was nothing intentional during his postrace availability.
“I hate that we got into the 11,” Bowman said. “I just got underneath him and spun him out. Iâ€™d be mad, too. I get it. But heâ€™s been on the other side of that enough to understand.”
“I understand why heâ€™s mad. Iâ€™d be mad, too. I drove off into the corner, got loose, spun him out. At the same time, I didnâ€™t do it on purpose. If I did, Iâ€™d tell you. Thatâ€™s part of it.”
Team FedEx Fed Up
The incident with Bowman capped off an eventful afternoon for Hamlin: the No. 11 had to start from the rear after multiple inspection failures and was denied points on the first stage after he was caught speeding on pit road. He would rally back to take the lead at lap 389 from his teammate Truex and managed to keep it when the leaders pitted 56 circuits later during a caution for Austin Dillon’s encounter with the wall.
Alas for Hamlin, a third win was not to be but he managed to build a points cushion sizable enough to push him into the Championship 4 for the third straight season. But his postrace comments and display have stolen the headlines as the series moves on to the desert.
“Heâ€™s just a hack. Just an absolute hack,” Hamlin said of Bowman in the publicized interview with NBC. “He gets his (butt) kicked by his teammates every week. Heâ€™s (expletive) terrible. Heâ€™s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.”
“We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the racetrack to give him all the room I could, he still canâ€™t drive.”
Yet another championship opportunity awaits Hamlin at Phoenix, as a Cup Series title hoist is perhaps the one thing missing from his NASCAR career. His 46 wins are second-most in Cup Series history amongst drivers without a championship (behind only Junior Johnson’s 50).
Hamlin won’t be alone as he returns to the championship circuit, as he’s joined by Truex after a gutsy run in the No. 19. The Mayetta, NJ native ran near the front for most of the afternoon but went through an absolute rollercoaster over the last 150 laps.
Truex’s Camry slightly overheated before he took the lead from Dillon at lap 386. After losing the top spot to Hamlin, he held a consistent lead on the battle for fourth but contact with Byron damaged his left front corner. Further contact with Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch shot him up the track at lap 471, but a surplus of lead lap cars prevented him from coming to pit road. His damaged No. 19 managed to maintain a spot in the top five, giving him just enough points to send Keselowski and Kyle Busch home.
“Thereâ€™s not a whole lot you can do other than drive,” Truex said of his approach to the final portions. “Thinking about it, worrying about it doesnâ€™t do you any good. You just got to try to go, hit your marks, get the most out of your race car. Luckily, we were able to do that.”
The Cup Series’ season finale returns to Phoenix for the second consecutive season after nearly two decades at Homestead-Miami. Elliott led 153 laps after starting from the back to capture his first Cup Series title and finished fifth in this season’s first desert outing back in March. Truex took home the victory in that race after leading the last 25 laps while Hamlin is one of five active drivers with multiple wins at the track, visiting victory lane in 2012 and 2019.
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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags