MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Martin Truex earned a spot in NASCAR’s championship race for the third consecutive year with a dominating Sunday victory at Martinsville Speedway.
Truex led 464 of the 500 laps in becoming the first driver to claim a spot in the Nov. 17 title-race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It marked the most laps led by a winner since Kyle Petty led 484 laps in 1992 at Rockingham.
There were just three lead changes, and Truex controlled the event from the first round of pit stops, when he beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin back onto the track for the lead. He was hardly challenged at all and his Toyota coasted to his first career victory at NASCAR’s shortest track.
Martinsville marked the first of three races in the round of eight of the playoffs, and three more drivers still need to qualify for Homestead. The next two rounds will be must-win situations for Chase Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver, who suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure and finished 36th in the 38-car field. A victory earns a playoff driver an automatic berth to the Homestead finale.
For Truex, the win was redemption from a year ago at Martinsville when he raced Joey Logano cleanly over the closing laps and Logano snatched the win away from Truex. Logano then won the championship.
As Truex celebrated on the frontstrech, Hamlin and Logano were having what appeared to be a civil conversation on pit road. But Logano placed his hand on Hamlin’s shoulder somewhat flippantly as he walked away. Hamlin chased after him, crew members got into the way and Hamlin was knocked to the ground.
Hamlin said after it was how Logano typically handles confrontation.
“It was civil and then like Joey does, he does a little push and then runs away,” Hamlin said. “He said, ‘Do you want to go?’ I said ‘Yes, I’m here’ and then he runs away.”
Logano said the incident stemmed from on-track contact when Hamlin shoved Logano into the wall and caused a cut tire.
“I was pretty frustrated, ruined our day,” Logano said. “We had a top-five for sure coming our way. Went to talk to him about it, maybe shouldn’t have shoved him there at the end. He really wasn’t apologetic at all. That’s more frustrating, isn’t it?”
William Byron and Brad Keselowski, both already eliminated from the playoffs, finished second and third.
Hamlin was fourth, followed by Ryan Blaney, another playoff contender.
Kurt Busch, eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, was sixth and followed by title contenders Kevin Harvick, Logano and Kyle Larson at his worst track in this round.
Kyle Busch had a really rough day and finished 18th, which would have been worst of the title contenders if not for Elliott’s issues.
Elliott had to start at the back of the field because of an engine change but worked his way inside the top-five until he stopped for a routine service. His Chevrolet lurched as he pulled away and he radioed in to his Hendrick Motorsports crew that he believed he had a broken axle.
Elliott returned to pit road for lengthy attempts at a repair before he finally drove his car to the garage for more intense work. It dropped him to last in the field by the end of the second stage.
Elliott returned to the track down 52 laps from the leaders and in a must-win situation either next week at Texas or in the elimination race of the third round of the playoffs at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix.
Truex meanwhile, won all three stages of the race. He took control of the race coming off pit road during service stops under yellow in the first stage and quickly went to work lapping most of the field. Hamlin started from the pole but had a below-average first pit stop under caution after leading the first 31 laps. He restarted fifth, with teammate Truex the new leader.
Matt Crafton raced Sunday at Martinsville for Matt Tifft, who fell ill before Saturday’s practice sessions and was treated at a hospital.
Crafton practiced and qualified the No. 36 for Front Row Motorsports while Tifft was at the hospital. Tifft was sent home and posted on social media he’s “still learning more of what exactly happened” and he is “resting at home now and have follow ups soon to get back to full health and back in the car soon.”
Tifft had a brain tumor removed in 2016 but returned to race the next year. He said in January he had been stabilized to the point he only needed annual checkups.
The middle race of the third round of the playoffs, Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Harvick won last year but was disqualified after for an illegal part. Hamlin won in the spring.