Round Three of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs began today at Martinsville Speedway. NASCAR opted to conduct qualifying for the First Data 500 the same day as the race. So Sunday’s action at the “paperclip” heated up early. Unlike the temperature which hovered in the high 40’s. It felt like an early winter day in the Virginia hills as the wind whipped through the grandstands.
Joey Logano(22), who missed this year’s playoffs, won the pole, just edging out series points leader Martin Truex Jr.(78). Playoff competitors Chase Elliott(24) and Ryan Blaney(21) will start side-by-side in the second row. The big news from qualifying? Jimmie Johnson’s(48) spun out and was relegated to the rear of the field for changing tires and rear end parts after the incident.
Johnson kept the car off the wall but was forced to change out flat-spotted tires prior to the start of the race. NASCAR rules mandate you must start the race on the tires you qualified on, thus his move to the final starting position is the penalty. His team also opted to change rear end components to make sure no damage occurred during the spin. Starting 40th at Martinsville is significant. As passing on the tight half-mile track is difficult.
NASCAR scheduled a competition caution on lap 45 as rain washed the track clean of rubber laid down during racing over the weekend. Michael McDowell(95) spun Ty Dillon(13) coming out of turn two on lap 35. The accident also collected Ricky Stenhouse Jr(17). The resulting caution was deemed to serve as the scheduled stop and everyone pitted for fresh tires and fuel.
Stages One and Two run 130 laps at Martinsville which is close to the fuel window. The scheduled stop assured that everyone would be able to complete the stage without pitting again. On lap 62 David Ragan(38) lost it, spun, and brought out the caution again. Johnson, who had worked himself up to 18th opted to pit for fresh tires that could help him gain additional spots on the new rubber.
On lap 87 Danica Patrick(10) clipped the rear quarter panel of A.J. Allmendinger’s(47) car. The accident brought out the third caution of the day and the leaders all chose to pit. Johnson, having pitted on the previous caution, stayed on the track and inherited the lead. Even though Johnson’s tires had 50 laps on them compared to those who pitted, he was able to hold on for fourth place at the end of the stage. Earning him 7 stage points for the effort. Kevin Harvick(4), the only playoff competitor to not earn a stage point, finished 13th.
Brad Keselowski(2) won the first Stage with Kyle Busch(18) second and Logano third.
Stage One Results
|Position||Car Number||Driver||Points Earned|
|5||78||Martin Truex Jr.||6|
|9||3||Austin Dillon (NP)||2|
NP=Non Playoff Competitor
Dennie Hamlin(11) got caught speeding on pit road during the stage ending caution. The penalty forced Hamlin to the rear of the field for the start of stage two. Kyle Busch(18) first out of the pits took the lead on the restart, pulled away and began lapping cars. Working lapped traffic allowed Keselowski to close onto Busch’s bumper.
Busch and Keselowski lapped all but 12 cars with 25 laps to go in the stage. Hamlin in 12th was in danger of going a lap down. Fortunately for the 11 car, as Busch and Keselowski battled for the Stage victory Hamlin was able to remain on the lead lap. Keselowski passed Busch with two laps to go. Sweeping the first two stages for Ford and Team Penske.
Stage Two Results
|Position||Car Number||Driver||Points Earned|
NP=Non Playoff Competitor
The top three drivers finished Stage Two in the same order as Stage One. Harvick moved into the top 10 and captured four stage points for seventh place. Hamlin failed to score a stage point finishing two positions behind Johnson in 10th.
The Final Stage
The final 240 laps of the First Data 500 comprise Stage Three. Given the dominance of Keselowski and Kyle Busch, it seemed likely one of the pair would punch their ticket to Miami-Homestead and a chance to win the 2017 Championship title. Busch again won the race off pit road and resumed the lead as Keselowski defended a challenge from Truex for second. The top two remained that way even when Kyle Larson(42) wrecked on lap 304 and the field pitted. Exiting the pits in the same order.
The fight for the lead heated up early in the final stage as Elliott drove to the front and Logano moved into second. Keselowski eventually returned to the second position and began stalking Elliott for the lead. Landan Cassill(34) brought out the caution on lap 360 and again the leaders all came to pit road.
Elliott lost the lead in the pits as Keselowski exited in first, Kyle Busch in second and dropping the second generation driver from Dawsonville, GA into third. On the restart, Keselowski pulled away as Truex rejoined the fray taking the second position from Busch. Elliott also passed Busch as the 18 car began to fade late in the race. Elliott returned to the lead with 115 laps to go.
With 43 laps to go Carl Long(66) hit the wall in turn one bringing out the caution. On the pit stop new tires and fuel prepped the cars for the run to the finish. Elliott exited first, Keselowski second, Logano third and Kyle Busch fourth. Keselowski took the lead with 30 to go after beating on the bumper of the 24 car for several laps. Elliott played bumper tag for a few laps until Keselowski opened a four car length lead.
Logano and Kyle Busch in a battle for third made contact with under 20 to go. Damage to the left rear of Logano’s car caused the tire to go flat with 10 to go. The 22 car spun bringing out the caution and setting up a four lap sprint to the finish.
Keselowski and Elliott lined up on the front row coming to the green. A great restart by both drivers took the fight for the lead side-by-side for a lap. Elliott bumped Keselowski to the high side of the track and took the top spot. Hamlin drove his way to second and put his bumper to Elliott taking the lead as Elliott lost control and spun. The final caution of the day sent the race to overtime.
Hamlin and Busch raced into turn one with Hamlin taking the lead. Busch dove inside Hamlin in three and four, both coming to take the white flag door handle to door handle. Busch forced Hamlin high and Truex drove into the mix on the low side of Busch. The three bumped going down the backstretch with Busch coming out the winner. Truex finished second and Hamlin lost control coming to the finish line causing a huge wreck as cars slid across the finish.
Clint Bower(14) emerged from the melee to take third, Keselowski recovered for the fourth spot and Karvick took fifth. Trevlor Bayne(6) captured sixth, Hamlin seventh, Blaney eighth, Kenseth ninth, and Stenhouse 10th. Jimmie Johnson finished 12th and Chase Elliott fell to 27th.
After the race Elliott ran Hamlin into the wall, displeased with being wrecked out of the lead. The two carried on the discussion upon exiting their cars on pit road until NASCAR officials separated them.
|Position||DRIVER||Car||POINTS||Cut Line Diff|
|1||Martin Truex Jr.||78||4117||64|
Kyle Busch locks up a spot in the finals. Martin Truex Jr. virtually assures himself one of the three remaining final round positions given his 64 point edge on the cut line. Chase Elliott went from potential winner to now needing a win to advance. While only 21 points separate the other five drivers competing for the final two spots.
Next week its Texas and the fireworks are likely to continue. Tempers are growing shorter as the pressure cranks up. Can’t wait!
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