With a berth in the championship round on the line, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. were willing to do whatever it took in the final laps of the First Data 500 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
After trading the lead back in forth in the last 10 laps, Logano put the bumper to Truex’s No. 78 Toyota and turned him sideways as the cars approached the start-finish line. Logano’s No. 22 Ford also wiggled, but he gathered it back in time to tip a hard-charging Denny Hamlin at the line.
“We were racing hard,” Logano said amid a mixture of hearty boos and cheers as he climbed out of his car. “You just have to expect at Martinsville at the end of the race that there’s going to be some bumping and grinding. That’s grassroots racing right there. That’s what the fans here come to see.
“This is by far the biggest win of the year and now we’re going to race for a championship in Miami!”
Logano became the first playoff driver in the Round of 8 to assure himself the chance of racing for a championship in three weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. As for Truex, the reigning series champion, he was left fuming on pit road and vowed that the Team Penske driver would not win the championship.
“I’m not going to let him with the championship. That’s it,” Truex said. “We should be in victory lane right now. I was next to him for six laps and never put the bumper to him. What goes around comes around.”
Truex’s crew chief Cole Pearn was just as angry as his driver, and he didn’t mince words.
“I’m happy I don’t have a baseball bat or a jackhammer right now,” a shaking Pearn said.
But Logano’s team owner Roger Penske wasn’t buying what Truex, Pearn and the Furniture Row Racing team were selling.
“[Truex] should know better than that,” Penske said. “That was as clean a shot as you can have in a race like this. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a comment that I don’t think we deserve. From my perspective, Joey drove a great race. Our team was consistently tops on pit road and he led the most laps. I can’t say enough for Joey’s performance today.”
Denny Hamlin, a five-time Martinsville winner who has gone winless this season, said the only thing he was hoping for at the end was for Logano and Truex to “crash harder.”
When asked about the finish, Hamlin said he could see it coming.
“I think [Logano] knew he couldn’t win from the outside so that was his only shot. You could see it coming. I think everybody could see it coming.
“We’ve had some great finishes, and they all revolve around short tracks. You take aerodynamics out of the way and get back to short tracks, you could have racing like this every week.”
Kyle Busch, the top seed entering the third round, finished fourth, followed by Penske driver Brad Keselowski. Among the other Round of 8 drivers, Kurt Busch finished sixth, Chase Elliott seventh, Kevin Harvick 10th, Aric Almirola 11th and Clint Bowyer 21st.
After a relatively calm first two stages, the action picked up in the final stage, which began with Logano leading nearly 100 laps of the third segment before finally getting passed by Truex on lap 360. But Truex’s lead didn’t last long.
Following a caution on lap 366 after William Byron spun and hit the outside wall, the cars lined up for restart that saw Truex surge ahead only to see Logano pass him again on lap 377.
Roughly 20 laps later, Kyle Larson hit the wall on the backstretch after his No. 42 Chevrolet suffered a mechanical failure. A lengthy caution period brought yet another restart, and Logano was able to maintain his lead until his teammate Brad Keselowski caught him and passed him on lap 419.
And then the yellow flew again, when contact between Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson led to a spin by Clint Bowyer on lap 457. The ensuing caution brought all the leaders to pit road and Logano emerged with the lead again, with Kyle Busch restarting second and Brad Keselowski third.
Hamlin won the opening stage after starting third.
Hamlin, who led 29 laps in the first segment, led a quartet of Round of 8 playoff drivers with Logano edging Kyle Busch for second, Bowyer taking fourth and Kurt Busch fifth. Ryan Newman rallied 10 positions from a 16th-place starting spot to finish sixth in the opener. He was followed by Truex, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Chase Elliott. Truex was the field’s biggest mover, jumping 24 positions after starting 31st because the reigning series champion failed pre-race inspection.
Logano and Hamlin staged a fierce battle in the closing laps of the second stage with Logano just nipping the stage 1 winner at the line. Kyle Busch, Truex and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five, with Newman finishing sixth again, Elliott seventh, Bowyer eighth, AJ Allmendinger ninth and Keselowski 10th.
At the other end of the spectrum, Harvick was passed by Logano with a few laps remaining but closed the segment as the first car one-lap down in 15th and was able to get back on the lead lap as the lucky dog.