NASCAR Just Found The Cure To Its Woes: A Race Every Week At Martinsville – Forbes
NASCAR now has a template for regenerating some of the interest in stock-car racing that had faded away: Put on more shows like the First Data 500, Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Va., which ended with a frenzied finish, a pile of crumpled cars and four seething drivers hollering in one another’s faces.
“It was complete bull—- chaos,” Denny Hamlin growled in a TV interview after the race. The announcers later had to offer an apology to viewers for Hamlin’s salty language, but it was really good stuff.
Kyle Busch won the race to advance to the “championship” race Nov. 19 in Homestead, Fla., but three confrontations between Hamlin and Chase Elliott was the stuff of legends — the spice that has made stock-car racing so much fun and has been sorely missing lately.
The first clash between Hamlin, a crafty 36-year-old veteran from Virginia, and Elliott, the 21-year-old son of former champion Bill Elliott and a driver who is likely to succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the series’ most popular, came on the 497th lap of the 500-lap race.
As night fell and the temperature dipped to 40 degrees at the tight, half-mile track, Elliott had grabbed the lead from Brad Keselowski on a restart and appeared to be headed to his first Monster Energy Cup victory — and a berth in the four-driver championship race.
But Hamlin, also running hard for a championship spot, placed the nose of his car under the rear of Elliott’s car and “jacked up” Elliott — he took away the grip on Elliott’s rear tires, spinning Elliott out and sending him slamming into the retaining wall, his victory hopes dashed in a plume of smoke.
After another restart, Busch took the lead from Hamlin and held off Martin Truex Jr. for the victory, but cars driven by Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney, two more drivers in the title hunt, were among those tangled in the pack behind the leaders. Harvick and Blaney growled at each other after the race.
“Bent fenders, hurt feelings — I love it,” Harvick said.
No one appeared to be hurt, and the optics were just spectacular, with tire smoke, sparks and fires. Elliott, who had reentered the race, drove up next to Hamlin’s car and cut him off. Then Hamlin climbed out of his car and strode over to bark at Elliott, who barked back.
“You wrecked me,” Elliott could be seen yelling several times at Hamlin on replays.
No punches were thrown, the way some disagreements between drivers ended in the old days, but Hamlin was heavily booed by the crowd at Martinsville, and Elliott was heartily cheered as both did post-race interviews with NBC. One fan challenged Hamlin to a fight.
“I tried to move him out of the way, and he spun out,” Hamlin said. “I got in there too hot, and I got into him.”
“My mom always said if you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all,” Elliott said, before adding, “I can’t control his decision, whatever the hell that was.”
The final three races of the season will be held on a mile-and-a-half oval at Fort Worth, a one-mile oval at Phoenix and the mile-and-a-half oval at Homestead — all tracks with much more breathing room than Martinsville, a longtime NASCAR mainstay.
“This is your race to get it done, and we all knew that,” Keselowski said, referring to the fact that only a few drivers really have a good chance to win at longer tracks.
Elliott dropped into last place among the eight drivers still in contention, but he still has a chance to make a comeback. Busch now leads Truex, with Keselowski third, but the race for the fourth spot in the finals is tight. Harvick holds it by three points over Jimmie Johnson.
NASCAR’s season is still way too long, and attendance and TV ratings have dwindled. The “stage racing” that was added this year to add meaning to the earlier part of races has not been popular with fans. A rocket scientist would have a hard time explaining the points system.
But in 15 minutes at Martinsville, you could really see just how much this race meant to the drivers, and that has not always been apparent. Maybe NASCAR can’t replicate the finish at Martinsville, but it can use it to sell the best aspect of the series: complete chaos.