We’re down to one race left of the 2021 NASCAR season. To get here, we’ve had three cutoff races, one for each round prior, to set the field for the Championship 4. In all three instances, we saw drama. In fact, all three saw friction between drivers which is exactly what NASCAR wanted when they created this new win and you’re in format in 2014.
In fact, since the stages came around in 2017, it’s further enhanced the postseason in a way where aggression is so key to advancing on.
Bristol saw Kevin Harvick vs. Chase Elliott.
Charlotte was Harvick vs. Elliott Part II.
Martinsville was the crescendo where this all hit a head. It peaked on Sunday to perfection which saw several ruffled feathers and even more hurt feelings.
Alex Bowman vs. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch vs. Brad Keselowski, Keselowski vs. Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. vs. Kurt Busch and Truex Jr. also vs. Aric Almirola too all in one race.
The thing is, Hamlin and Elliott had this race won if not for late race contact from desperate drivers. Those drivers with the exception of Bowman who was racing for nothing more than a grandfather clock, likely knew that both Hamlin and Elliott were already going to be into the Championship 4 so both of them could be ran wrong if needed in order to take matters into their own hands.
Keselowski got into Elliott in Turn 3 in the final laps. Elliott, had led over half the race prior to that and was running third at the time. It was a move that shouldn’t have been made by Keselowski.
“I mean, desperation I guess,” Elliott said of the final 50 laps of hard racing and why it didn’t occur in the first 400+ laps prior. “Some people needing to win. Restarts. Guys might find themselves in a little different position than they’ve been in all day. I don’t know.
“I mean, I’d say the biggest thing is just the need to win for some guys I would have to think. I’m probably not an expert either.”
Elliott, said that he didn’t feel like what Keselowski did to him though was necessarily on purpose either and even blamed himself for being in that position anyways.
“I mean, it’s tough. I was racing him hard on the outside. I wasn’t super surprised that he made a mistake,” he said. “As hard as he hit me, I knew he just didn’t clean me out on purpose. I figure he wheel hopped or something. I haven’t seen it. Really moving on was all that mattered.
“I had made some bad choices on adjustments, kind of got us behind. The real reason that happened was because I made a bad decision on what to do to our car. We started playing defense. When you start playing defense, you typically start crashing a lot of times, especially when guys need to win.
“I blame myself for leading us down the wrong path more than anything. I didn’t think it was on purpose either, so all good.”
Keselowski agreed saying that he definitely didn’t want to get into Elliott but the contact was via him pushing too hard for his championship hopes on the line with a bad handling race car.
“Got really tight in the middle of the race,” he said. “Car started rolling at the end. Just super free. I was so loose. Got underneath the 9, got loose. Spun him out. All I could do to hold onto the car.
“We got it better, put ourselves in a position. Just wasn’t quite strong enough there at the end. Disappointing. All in all we gave it a great run here. Wish I could have last week at Kansas back, that’s for sure. Felt like I left the eight points we were short there with some mistakes I made.
“All in all, proud of our team. Proud of the efforts that everyone put in. Disappointed for Team Penske to not get through to the final round. We gave it our best. Feel bad for Chase, that he got caught up there. At least he’s still good for next week. Frustrating day.”
Bowman as a result took the checkered flag in Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway after sliding up into Hamlin’s race-leading Toyota on Lap 494 of 501 and knocking Hamlin’s car up the track and into the outside wall.
As Bowman tried to start a burnout to celebrate his fourth NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season and his first at the .526-mile short track, Hamlin drove to the frontstretch and expressed his displeasure by twice blocking the progress of Bowman’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“He’s just a hack,” Hamlin said of the race winner. “Just an absolute hack. He gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.
“Obviously, he’s got the fast car of the week and he runs 10th. He didn’t want to race us there. We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the race track to give him all the room I could—he still can’t drive.”
Bowman though admitted that he made a mistake. He drove deep into the corner but on older tires, you tend to get loose on the bottom of Martinsville. That caused him to slide up into Hamlin which in turn took Hamlin out and sparked those comments.
Is Bowman a hack? He won four times this season so I’d say he’s far from it. Is he getting his ass kicked by his teammates each race? He has won more times than Chase Elliott and William Byron combined this year.
Hamlin was frustrated and I get that. It was a move that Hamlin left the door open and Bowman still smashed into him by a mistake on his own.
“I just got loose in,” Bowman said of the accident that gave him the lead. “I got in too deep (into Turn 3), knocked him out of the way and literally let him have the lead back. For anybody that wants to think I was trying to crash him, obviously that wasn’t the case, considering I literally gave up the lead at Martinsville to give it back to him.
“He’s been on the other side of that. He’s crashed guys here for wins. I hate doing it. Obviously, I don’t want to crash somebody. I just got in, got underneath him, spun him out… Regardless, we get a free grandfather clock (trophy), which is pretty special.”
I mean, Hamlin got into Chase Elliott in a more egregious move back in 2017 in the same corner in a similar late race scenario too. Joey Logano did the same to Martin Truex Jr. in 2018. Hamlin and Logano had a run in for the 2019 race and now this.
That’s just Martinsville in this era. That’s going to happen.
It also happened with Busch vs. Keselowski on the last lap when Keselowski had to make a desperate move in hoping to go from third to first to get himself into the final round in his final season at Team Penske. It didn’t work. He drove through Busch to try to make it happen which left with some hurt feelings in wake of that.
“He drills my ass coming out of (Turn) 4 for no reason,” Busch said. “Where was he going? What was he going to do? Spin me out?
“He was trying to do a Harvick is what he was trying to do. For what? For second place? To do what? He wasn’t going to transfer through with that. Freaking (R-word). So stupid. I don’t understand these guys.
“I should beat the shit out of him right now is what I should do, but that doesn’t do me any good either.”
What he was referring to was Kevin Harvick purposely spinning Busch out on the last lap of last year’s race to try and gain that one extra point.
Truex wasn’t happy with being doored and moved up the track multiple times at the end of the race either.
The thing is, you see a common dominator? These drivers were being overly aggressive with cars that weren’t good enough to be making those moves.
Bowman got loose under Hamlin in Turn 3. Keselowski got loose under Elliott in Turn 3. Keselowski and Busch threw Hail Mary’s to get to the top three on the final restart.
When making moves with a non race winning car against cars that were, you’re going to get this at a short track like Martinsville in a position of having to win to get into the final round.
This all also begs the question, are the playoff tracks in perfect spots? I mean, the Round of 12 is the ultimate wildcard. You get a superspeedway in Talladega followed by the ROVAL. Really, you don’t control your own destiny in this round outside of Vegas.
Next year, Texas moves up to Vegas’ spot to open the Round of 12 which makes an even bigger added importance on that race now. Kansas in turn goes to the opening round sandwiched between Darlington and Bristol. That gets importance as you don’t want to go to Bristol needing a win. Really, between Bristol, Talladega and the ROVAL, those three races in a five week span are mostly out of your control. So, Kansas and Texas have prime real estate again while the cut races mixed with Talladega gives us the drama we’re searching for.
I get the drivers and teams despise the Round of 12. I mean, why wouldn’t you if you were in their shoes. The odds of trouble are greater here than the odds of not getting caught up in something not of your doing. For a driver, you want to control your own destiny and the Round of 12, you really can’t outside of Vegas this year and Texas next.
This round can easily take out championship favorites.
Then for the Round of 8, you get things back in your hands a little more with Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.
“I mean, it’s just eight guys. It’s the eight best guys of the year trying to whittle it down to four,” Truex Jr. said on why the Round of 8 sparks more anxiety than the Championship 4. “You know it’s going to be tight, close, every spot is going to matter. Unless you’re Kyle Larson, you won 30 races this year, it’s going to be close. 29, sorry (laughter). I mean, you know it’s going to be close. You come down to Martinsville, you know it’s going to be a nail-biter, which it was.
“Next week it’s an honor and pleasure to get to race for championships. Only four of us get to do it. It’s a fun week. It’s definitely a lot less pressure than trying to go eight to four.”
2020 and 2021 have shown great progress with the playoff schedule with 2022 looking at perfection for what is an ever evolving new NASCAR.
Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief, said that this is the way NASCAR wants it. They want this chaos and controversy. He’s right. The cutoff races and their spots on the schedule prove that and it’s giving NASCAR the added attention that they’ve been missing.
Boys have at it.