The drama between Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott garnered most of the attention after Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, and justifiably so.
When Hamlin dumped Elliott in turn 3 with three laps left in regulation, the entire complexion of the race – and of Elliott’s season – change in an instant.
Overshadowed, but not overlooked, was the ongoing war between Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney, who swapped sheet metal throughout the event.
During a 121-lap green-flag run that consumed the second stage of the race, Harvick pounded on the bumper of Blaney’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, as Blaney used every tactic he could muster to keep Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Fusion behind him.
After every caution, it seemed, Blaney and Harvick would be racing in close quarters, and both ran out of patience.
During one sequence, after Harvick hit Blaney repeatedly from behind, Blaney turned left and door-slammed Harvick’s Ford down the frontstretch. Blaney later apologized to his team on the radio for damaging the car.
Both drivers were involved in a multicar wreck after race winner Kyle Busch took the checkered flag, with Harvick coming home fifth and Blaney sliding across the finish line in eighth.
After exiting their cars, the drivers had a pointed conversation on pit road.
“I just told him, I said, ‘Look, if you’re going to park it at Martinsville, you’re going to get hit,’” Harvick said. “He didn’t like getting hit, and I didn’t like the cheap shots, the brake checks and the hitting down the straightaway.
“It’s like I told him, I said, ‘If you want to race hard and you want to run into me after I pass you, that’s fine, but slamming me down the straightaway and brake-checking me is another thing.’ That’s the easy way to race.”
Blaney provided a bland explanation of the post-race conversation.
“We were just talking about how the race was and what we could do to avoid it the next time,” Blaney said.
Overall, though, it was the kind of action Harvick thrives on, and the top-five was an added bonus.
“Bent fenders, hurt feelings – I love it,” Harvick said.
Brad Keselowski Comes Close In ‘Must-Win’ Race
Brad Keselowski came close to calling his own shot.
Coming to Martinsville Speedway, the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford termed Sunday’s First Data 500 a ‘must-win’ event, uncertain of his organization’s ability to keep up with the Toyotas at downforce tracks like Texas.
And with eight laps left in regulation distance at the .526-mile short track, Keselowski was cruising toward a victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8 opener and a ticket to race for his second series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But teammate Joey Logano had developed a severe tire rub after contact from race winner Kyle Busch’s Toyota, and on lap 492, the tire went flat and Logano went spinning, causing the 10th caution of the race.
Chase Elliott muscled his way past Keselowski on the subsequent restart on lap 497, and after Hamlin dropped-kicked Elliott into the turn 3 wall to force overtime, Keselowski came home fourth.
Yes, the No. 2 Ford won the first and second stages, but the important prize eluded him. Nevertheless, Keselowski chose to accentuate the positive after the race.
“There was a lot of hard fighting here because it’s a short track,” Keselowski said. “That’s what short tracks are kind of about is rooting and gouging. You try not to take anybody out, but you’ve got to sometimes rub a little bit.
“But we had a really great Alliance Truck Parts Ford. We were able to lead laps and win the two stages and bring home a solid finish, and that’s something to be proud of.”
The fourth-place finish did leave Keselowski third in the standings, with a 29-point cushion over fifth-place Jimmie Johnson. The Playoff field will be cut from eight to four drivers two weeks hence at Pheonix.
Jimmie Johnson Struggles To 12th Place Finish At Martinsville
The track that used to be Jimmie Johnson’s personal playground recently has become an enigma to the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Johnson wheel-hopped and spun in turn 3 during Sunday’s qualifying session at Martinsville Speedway. Precautionary changes to the rear end of the No. 48 Chevrolet sent the nine-time Martinsville winner to the rear for the start of the First Data 500.
Handling was an issue throughout the race. Ultimately, Johnson salvaged a 12th-place finish after losing a lap and getting it back as the highest scored lapped car under ninth of 11 cautions.
But it was a far cry from the domination Johnson showed at the .526-mile paper-clip-shaped track, where he won five races in a six-race span from 2006 through 2009. The only saving grace was a strategy play that earned Johnson seven points in the races first stage after he stayed out on old tires and finished fourth in the segment.
“We were just terrible all day,” acknowledged Johnson, who ended the day fifth in the standings, three points behind Kevin Harvick in fourth. “Oh, what a bummer. We had high hopes for this weekend. Man, it just didn’t turn out so well.
“So we scored some points here and there. We’ll go to the next one and try to get more.”