After the seventh race of the playoffs for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, tensions are just as high as the stakes moving forward after Kyle Busch raced his way into the championship-deciding race for the third consecutive year after winning at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
From the 14th starting position, Kyle Busch and his pit crew were able to work the no. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry to the front and win the First Data 500. However, the post-race conversations were all about the no. 24 Napa Chevy of Chase Elliott and the no. 11 FedEx Toyota of Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, a five-time Martinsville winner, was second after Elliott grabbed the lead from Brad Keselowski and sent him out of the groove. While battling for the lead with just three laps to go, Denny Hamlin was aggressive entering turn three, hitting the rear bumper of Elliot’s car hard and spinning him out.
Chase Elliott showed his displeasure after the conclusion of the race when he drove into Hamlin’s car and had an intense conversation with the driver of the no. 11. Elliott was running first at the time that he was spun. Had he hung on to the lead for just two-and-a-half more laps, he would’ve left the track with his first career win in the Cup Series, as well as a guaranteed spot in the championship race as one of the four drivers eligible to win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. Elliott finished 27th.
The race started under a cloudy Virginia sky, with Joey Logano leading the field to the green flag. His future teammate Ryan Blaney and current teammate Brad Keselowski found their ways to the front to run first, second, and third early in the race, solidifying the Fords as strong cars for the day.
The first caution flag flew on lap 36 when Ty Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. spun off of turn 2. Originally, NASCAR was going to throw the caution on lap 45 as a competition caution, since rain washed off the track the night prior to the race. Because of this timely caution, however, NASCAR elected to use the early yellow as the competition caution.
After the restart, Brad Keselowski took the lead from Logano, and never looked back as he went on to dominate the rest of stage one.
Kyle Busch, who was able to get the lead after pit stops between the first and second stages, led most of the second stage, which was much calmer than the first. Keselowski followed Busch for just about the entire time, running bumper-to-bumper with his rival. With just a few laps left in the stage, Keselowski showed his muscle and powered around Busch in the midst of lapped traffic, which allowed him to race to his second stage win of the day.
Stage three was once again a spectacle of short track racing, seeing the majority of the race’s caution fall during the stage.
It was dominated by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, but closing in on 100 laps to go, a new driver joined the party up front.
Chase Elliott took the lead away on lap 385 and kept it until Carl Long spun out on lap 457, bringing out another caution.
Tensions rose as the laps ran out, with Elliott, Keselowski, and Busch up front, beating and banging on each other. Finally, the aggression became too much. Joey Logano was hit by Kyle Busch, who slammed the quarter panel of Logano’s car into the tire. The tire rub on Logano’s no. 22, which resulted from the contact, ended up flattening the left rear tire on his car, and he spun out to bring out another caution.
The race restarted with four laps left. Keselowski, who had the most dominant car of the day, was pushed out of the way by Chase Elliott, who took the lead in aggressive style. Denny Hamlin was then second behind Elliott, looking for his sixth win at his home track. Going into turn three on lap 497, Hamlin slammed the rear bumper of Elliott, pushing him hard into the corner and wrecking him.
The race, which had fallen into the night and under the lights, was now into overtime. When Denny Hamlin led the field to two laps to go, he was challenged by his teammate Kyle Busch, who passed him easily. Martin Truex, Jr. gave Busch a run for the checkered flag, but it was Kyle Busch who took the win as most of the remaining cars crashed behind him.
This race marks Busch’s fifth win of the season, but more importantly, advances him automatically to the final round of the playoffs as one of the four drivers who will be eligible to race for a championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in just a few short weeks,
Chase Elliott, who was wrecked from the lead and is still in the playoffs, confronted Denny Hamlin after the race. The two drivers had words with each other and seemed close to throwing punches, but they kept their tempers down.
With Kyle Busch now moving to Homestead, two races remain to determine three more spots in the final four. Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick currently hold those positions, leaving Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott on the outside looking in.
Next Sunday, NASCAR’s Camping World Trucks, Xfinity, and Monster Energy Cup Series will race in a triple-header weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
For a more in-depth look at the First Data 500, tune in to NASCAR Nation on 107.7 The Bronc FM WRRC Thursday night at 7 p.m. eastern time, hosted by the writer of this article, Joseph Passero.