First Data 500 – Martinsville Speedway

NASCAR races at Martinsville Speedway are dubious at best.  Going into a race weekend, usually the weather presents an issue with plenty of uncertainty as to how the cars will run in the cold, or rain, or snow… if they manage to run at all.  And after the Cup Series runs on Sunday, there is plenty of debate with trash talk from drivers and fans taking sides over how the race finished.

Why all the fuss? The track is short, the race is long, drivers are low on patience and high on emotions. So it’s the perfect storm for a controversial finish.  And speaking of a storm, this past Sunday there was heavy rain closing in according to radar, causing teams to wonder if the final stage of the race would get cut short.  Anyone who didn’t foresee a finish of beatin’ and bangin’ must be new to the sport.

As the first race in the Round of 8 for the 2018 Playoffs, The First Data 500 posed plenty of questions including which driver would join the ‘Big 3’ at Homestead.  With Chase Elliott having won 2 of the last 3 races, plenty of eyes were on him, especially as he made some big moves from his starting position in 21st place to join the Top 10 by the end of Stage 1.  There was also question as to whether it would be Clint Bowyer or Kurt Busch both of whom have been running really well as SHR teammates.  As it turned out, indeed it was a Ford that would advance but it wasn’t from the SHR camp.

Kyle Busch leads the Field to Green during First Data 500, Martinsville 2018

Pole Sitter Kyle Busch led the field to green and hung onto the lead for 31 laps before conceding to teammate Denny Hamlin.  Meanwhile, Busch’s Big 3 counterparts had their work cut out for them, with Kevin Harvick in P13 after a disappointing qualifying round, and Martin Truex Jr starting at the rear after failing post-qualifying inspection.

Also starting at the rear was Jimmie Johnson, who during pre-race had announced his new sponsor for the next 2 seasons, Ally Financial.  On Lap 70, Johnson wheel hopped and spun, bringing out the second caution of the race.  The Stage 1 win went to Denny Hamlin with driver Joey Logano close behind in P2.

As the majority of cars headed for pit road to take on new tires before Stage 2, Clint Bowyer T-boned William Byron as Byron turned into his pit.  Both cars incurred minimal damage and returned to the track where shortly afterward Bowyer made contact with Martin Truex Jr. who had patiently worked his way through traffic and was now in the fifth position.

Logano’s #22 Ford continued to be fast in Stage 2 where he battled with teammate Brad Keselowski for a while, as well as Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Though he was shuffled back a few spots here and there, a late caution and an efficient pit stop put Logano back out front and he claimed the stage win.

Stage 3 incurred the threat of rain and several caution flags including one for a fire inside the car of Matt DiBenedetto, another for a fire in the #66 Toyota of Timmy Hill, one for William Byron who hit the wall on Lap 367, and one for Kyle Larson who smacked the back straightaway wall on Lap 397.  Meanwhile, Logano battled with Truex Jr. who assumed the lead on Lap 360 only to lose it again to Logano just 17 laps later. Surprisingly, Penske teammate Brad Keselowski showed up and battled Logano for the lead, putting on a show for the crowd as they drag raced each other door to door.  If not for Keselowski putting the pressure on Logano in such a way that it began to use up the tires on the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, Martin Truex Jr, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch might have never been able to catch Logano who had consistently won every restart and had quickly pulled away to a comfortable lead.

Joey Logano poses with Martinsville trophy of a Grandfather Clock

Of all three cars, it was the #78 of Truex Jr that put up the most fight with bumper to bumper racing that progressed to door to door.  As the white flag flew, Truex managed to wiggle past on the inside of Logano so it was looking like Truex had done the impossible and had driven from the back to win his first-ever short track race. However, as they approached the final turn, Logano fought back with a gentle tap of the bumper to the #78 Toyota, moving him up the track as Joey slid back into position on the inside. Truex got loose but seemed to hang onto the car as they went side by side into the turn.  But as they exited onto the front straightaway and began leaning on each other, Truex fishtailed and lost his momentum.  Denny Hamlin attempted to capitalize on the situation and pulled out to pass both cars as he headed for the checkered flag, but Logano crossed the finish line first and scored the win.

Naturally, Truex was less than impressed that Logano had moved him up the track.  However, in all fairness, all playoff drivers were interviewed pre-race and asked if they would move another driver for the win.  Every last one of them had agreed they would, Truex included.  So perhaps if Truex had been behind Logano on the last lap, he would have done the same thing.  We’ll never know for sure.  What we do know is that a very happy Logano now advances to the Final 4 at Homestead.  We also know that Truex is NOT happy.  He chose to show his displeasure by slamming into Logano on the cool down lap, much in the same way he slammed into Jimmie Johnson after the Charlotte Roval.  He has also vowed to ensure that Logano won’t win the championship because he plans to.  It seems Truex has forgotten that Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are also part of that equation.

The 2nd race in the Round of 8 takes place next Sunday (November 4th) at Texas Motor Speedway.

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