As long as you’re not a Chase Elliott fan, last year’s Martinsville race was hands-down the best of the 2017 playoffs.
With four laps to go and Elliott leading, it appeared he might actually get his first Cup Series win and punch his ticket to the championship race all at once.
Then, Denny Hamlin showed up.
Hamlin got nto Elliott’s bumper, and as the two entered a turn, Hamlin didn’t let off. Actually, he did the opposite. He — and you could say bumped or threw or shoved, but they all mean the same — sent Elliott careening into the wall, wrecking his car, his chances for the win, and any hopes of advancing to the championship race at Homestead.
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“It’s just not necessary,” Elliott said afterward. “It’s definitely 100 percent unnecessary and uncalled for.”
In his defense, Hamlin said, “Well, he said I wrecked him and obviously Ray Charles saw that. ... Unfortunately there is a ticket to Homestead at stake.”
And it’s that point — this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway is a golden ticket, a guaranteed place for the winner in the Cup Series championship — that brings us full-circle. Last season, neither Hamlin nor Elliott ended up advancing to Homestead, largely because of what transpired between them at Martinsville.
So, will we get the same drama-filled dust-up we saw at the short track last fall, or will this year’s ‘Craziest Playoff Race’ award go to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval?
One thing working against Martinsville’s chances? No Hamlin. He’ll still be in the race, of course, but having been eliminated from the playoffs already, that same feud with Elliott isn’t likely to crop up. You never know though ...
As for Elliott, he’s the best thing Martinsville has going for it. This season has officially been Elliott’s breakout, as the 23-year-old now has three wins, two of those coming in the playoffs. A fourth at Martinsville, one of his stronger tracks, is absolutely in the realm of possibility.
Not only that, but if Elliott could avenge that questionable loss from last season and be the first driver locked into the Championship 4? What a heck of a story that’d be.
Then add in the fact that two of the last three seasons this race has gone into overtime, plus the natural draw of short track racing, and there’s ingredients aplenty to suggest this weekend mimics its 2017 predecessor.
That, obviously, would be great for NASCAR and its fans.
Again, as long as you’re not a Chase Elliott backer.
This week’s NASCAR race: Martinsville: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500.
Distance: 500 laps, or 263 miles.
Where: Martinsville Speedway, a 0.526-mile concrete and asphalt oval in Ridgeway, Virginia.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch.
Worth mentioning: Chase Elliott was in line for his first career Cup Series win in this race last season until Denny Hamlin bumped him with three laps to go — Busch went on to win in overtime.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Chase Elliott: Another playoff win for Elliott at Kansas has him through to the third round of the playoffs and in great position to advance to the Championship 4.
Kyle Busch: He’s been the strongest of the Big 3 since the playoffs began, and with just three races left until Homestead, has to be the preemptive favorite to win this year’s championship.
Kyle Larson: If Larson had had another 10 laps Sunday, he might’ve been able to overtake Elliott and Busch for the win at Kansas — instead, he fails to advance to the third round of the playoffs for the third straight season.
Ryan Blaney: It was a quick fall out of the playoffs for Blaney, who couldn’t turn a come-from-behind win at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval into any real momentum.