Much to the contrast of most of the season, I’ve been downright amazed at the end of each of the last three races. Each of these races have had big wrecks, exciting finishes, and tons of drama. There’s been so much excitement that this NASCAR fan has almost started to think that the “playoffs” aren’t so bad after all. Martinsville’s race on Sunday was no exception.
Of the anticipated favorites, Johnson and Earnhardt struggled, as did Hamlin for most of the day. Meanwhile, Keselowski won both opening stages, and he and Elliot swapped the lead throughout most of the race. In the end, Kyle Busch punched his ticket for Miami, but his win was mostly overshadowed by controversy. And, while Kyle is usually at the center of controversy in the cup series, this week it had nothing to do with the #18 car.
With just a couple laps to go Chase Elliot left a donut on Keselowski’s door to take the lead, but the #2 dropped back a few spots and was able to continue racing. A few corners later, Denny Hamlin drove deep into the turn, slammed into Elliot’s bumper, and wrecked the #24 car, just a mile or two short of what would’ve been Chase Elliot’s first cup series win and a chance to compete for a championship in Miami. After the ensuing restart, Hamlin turned down the track, and pushed Ryan Blaney all the way from the top lane to the inside wall, causing a wreck in the process that literally blocked off the entire front stretch as the field crossed the finish line.
To be clear, I’m not trying to hate on Hamlin. In fact, until Sunday I had a mostly positive opinion of Denny. It was just an obvious, clear fact that he lost his cool Sunday, and took out lots of other cars, including the #24 in the process. The proof was in the crowd’s reaction at the track. After a very intense conversation on the track with Elliot, They both parked on pit road with the rest of the “playoff” cars. As soon as Denny climbed out of his car, the stands lit up with a roaring boo so loud that I could barely hear his post-race interview through my TV’s speakers. Just as loudly as the crowd had booed Hamlin, they cheered Chase Elliot all the way through his interview.
Keep in mind, Hamlin is a Virginia native, and he’s been cheered all the way through five wins at Martinsville. I’ve watched NASCAR for most of my life, and I’ve heard a lot of drivers get booed. But, I’ve never once heard Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Juan Montoya, Joey Logano or any other driver ever get booed as loudly as Hamlin did last weekend. I’ve also never heard a crowd cheer as loudly for any driver except maybe Dale Jr.
Denny Hamlin denied any blame for either accident during his TV interviews, but did tweet an apology after the race. Now that the points have all been counted, Chase Elliot sits basically a half race behind fourth place. Barring a miracle win for the #24 (which is certainly possible) Elliot won’t win a championship this season. However, what the crowd in Virginia proved was that after Earnhardt’s retirement, NASCAR will have a new favorite driver, and anybody who wrecks him will hear about it.
Here’s how they stand coming into Texas: