On Sunday night at Martinsville Speedway, the NASCAR community collectively learned something it always knew:
We need more short tracks.
And honestly, to hell with the excuses, NASCAR. We’re all sick of hearing about the five-year sanctioning agreements, the lack of hospitality space, nearby casinos or whatever reason big league stock-car racing has evolved into weekly cookie-cutter slot-car events.
The people have spoken.
It’s been awhile since a NASCAR event has generated so much interest, debate and overall enthusiasm, but Sunday night at Martinsville was the most fun we’ve had on the tour all season.
And understand this: It isn’t about the finish, the copious amount of carnage or even the post-race altercations. That was a damn fine race, from start to finish, considering the championship implications, pit strategies and then the epic conclusion.
The First Data 500 was a compelling affair that held our short attention spans for over three hours without once encouraging us to tune out. How often, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, can we say that about a Cup race?
Be it Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, Iowa Speedway or Kern County Raceway in California, all three NASCAR national tours need an influx of short tracks.
I honestly don’t care which undeserving of two dates venues get the ax, but something has to happen. Sunday night was the most galvanizing race of the 2017 season and we need more of it.
Here’s the weekly rundown of what we learned over the weekend in southern Virginia.
There is so much to unwrap from Sunday night, but Denny Hamlin versus Chase Elliott is a great place to start.
Quick review: Elliott was just over two laps away from his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory, not to mention an automatic berth into the Championship 4, when Hamlin drove into his back bumper and sent the No. 24 into the outside retaining wall.
So let’s pick this one apart:
The case could be made that Hamlin made an overaggressive, bordering on underhanded, move, but it’s also one encouraged by this championship format. If they finish 1-2, Elliott advances and also leapfrogs everyone ahead of him. We already know that one of the four spots will most likely go to Martin Truex Jr., since at least one non-winner will advance. So Hamlin, not wanting to risk regret, took his best shot at racing for a championship.
For historical reference, think back in 2014 when Jeff Gordon finished second at Martinsville to Dale Earnhardt Jr. He would later miss the championship round by a single point, despite finishing second again two weeks later at Phoenix. This happened because he finished 29th after an incident with Brad Keselowski the week before at Texas Motor Speedway. That would have been a moot point had Gordon simply been more aggressive with Earnhardt during a green-white-checkered at Martinsville.
Granted, they were Hendrick Motorsports teammates, but not pushing the issue against Earnhardt arguably cost Gordon a chance at the championship. Second, 29th and second was not enough to advance to Homestead. Hamlin could not afford to become the next 2014 Jeff Gordon.
This is the environment NASCAR desired when it crafted the current championship format back in 2014. Before that season, Hamlin could have made peace with a ‘good points day’ but winning means everything now, and it was made abundantly clear on Sunday night.
Here are some other points to ponder:
* Why didn’t Team Penske call Joey Logano to pit road after he cut a tire with 15 laps to go? Brad Keselowski likely wins the race going away if not for Logano’s spin. That would have placed him in the championship race, while Logano isn’t even a playoff driver. That’s a hugely unnecessary risk.
* Why did Keselowski give Elliott the bottom line for the lap 496 restart? Sure, he made the outside work with teammate Joey Logano to his inside, but this is Martinsville. You can’t give a young, possibly desperate, driver like Elliott the opportunity to wash up the track and take the lead.
* Lastly, there are no valid comparisons between the Elliott/Keselowski incident and the Hamlin/Elliott incident. Elliott was at Keselowski’s door and simply washed up the track to complete the pass. That is traditionally accepted as an element of short track racing. Meanwhile, Hamlin drove hard into the back of Elliott’s bumper and spun him out. Historically, that’s called ‘wrecking the leader.’ Again, it’s borderline necessary with this championship format, but it’s also a stop beyond the move Elliott made on Keselowski.
Barring an unexpected winner over the next two weeks at Texas or Phoenix, the Championship 4 is close to set after Martinsville.
Kyle Busch won and punched his ticket into the Championship Race. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. finished second and left the paperclip-shaped short track 67 points ahead of the provisional cutoff line. Even Brad Keselowski is relatively safe after finishing fourth. He’s 29 points ahead of the cutoff.
So Busch is a lock and Truex is a virtual lock.
After Sunday’s incident, Elliott is 26 points back and in a virtual must-win mode over the next two weekends. That’s true assuming the likes of Keselowski, Kevin Harvick (+3,) Jimmie Johnson (-3,) Ryan Blaney (-6,) or Denny Hamlin (-8) don’t all have major problems over the next two races.
So again, if you assume that Truex is a lock alongside Busch, that leaves two more spots for a winner or on championship points. And Keselowski can control his own destiny by simply scoring a handful of stage points and scoring a top-10 after winning the first two stages on Sunday at Martinsville.