Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Chase Elliott doesn’t need to apologize to anyone for finishing 27th on Sunday. Elliott was racing for his first career win, and he did everything right in the process. He got a great restart late to take the lead, and got dumped. Denny Hamlin was on his bumper, and temptation proved too great. Hamlin jacked the No. 24 car up entering Turn 3 and dumped him, turning from hometown hero to a villain in the process. It wasn’t a bump-and-run, which would have been acceptable in the situation, and Elliott knew it. So, after the checkers, he drove the battered No. 24 car into Hamlin’s No. 11 machine and got out to confront Hamlin. And it was the smartest thing he could have done.
Elliott needed to stand up to Hamlin. If he’d allowed the dump-and-run to happen, or worse, apologized for his poor performance, he’d be effectively setting himself up as a doormat. Instead, he made it clear that he won’t be one, and that will help him on track.
Honorable mention to the fans who stayed in the stands, cheering for their drivers, in temperatures that dipped below 40 degrees by the end of the race. That’s everything this sport is.
What… did we learn from Martinsville?
That faster isn’t always better. The fastest lap of the race was 94 mph, yet the track produced — again — the best racing of the year. There were side-by-side battles through the field, authentic cautions, flaring tempers, a questionable move or two late in the race. The hometown hero was roundly booed, a son rose to the occasion, and the best driver at the track couldn’t crack the top 10. It was everything race fans have been clamoring for. What we saw showed a need for more of this style of racing in the sport, the kind of racing it was born from in the first place. It’s time for NASCAR to find room on the schedule for more.
What was unacceptable was the fan who tried to confront Hamlin after the race. Or the one who threw a drink bottle at him, narrowly missing some media members. That’s not what the sport is.
A fan just chucked this over the fence at Hamlin’s car on pit road. Landed right near a group of media interviewing Gustafson. pic.twitter.com/Euya09b40T
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) October 29, 2017
A Chase Elliott fan wants to fight Denny Hamlin. pic.twitter.com/kcGgfL6NNd
— Matt Weaver (@MattWeaverAW) October 29, 2017
Where… do we go from here?
It’s on to Texas Motor Speedway next weekend, and it’ll be all about the cars after a weekend that was all about the drivers. That means the Toyotas will be the heavy favorites, but don’t write off Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson or Elliott because they’ve had their moments lately.
Jimmie Johnson is the all-time wins leader at Texas with seven, and he’ll need a good run to save his title hopes after a miserable Martinsville. But if Johnson couldn’t find speed at Martinsville, does he have a prayer at Texas? That’s something to watch going in, though he did pick up his first victory of 2017 at the fast 1.5-mile venue.
Also to watch for: will Elliott exact revenge on Hamlin for Martinsville? Is Texas the last best shot for both Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to go out with a win? Kenseth has a top-10 average finish at Texas, so it’s probably his best hope. While it won’t be the same kind of edge-of-your-seat racing that Martinsville produced (and fans shouldn’t expect it to be), there’s enough drama going in to keep at least one eye on the TV next Sunday.
When… did Martin Truex, Jr. get so good?
Fans keep asking that question, and it’s puzzling, because it’s not like Martin Truex Jr. suddenly became talented. He suddenly finds himself in the best cars in the garage, but he’s always been the kind of driver who can dominate if he has the equipment to do it. He led every lap at Loudon en route to his first NASCAR win in the K&N Pro Series East (then Busch North) against some of the best drivers to ever run that series, driving for his family team. He’s a two-time XFINITY Series champion. It’s no fluke that Truex is capitalizing on the equipment he’s been given.
Does NASCAR need to take a closer look at Toyota’s dominance in the off-season? Probably. And that dominance has contributed to Truex’s dominance. But don’t mistake him for a driver just skating by on great cars. He’s always been capable of winning.
Why… did Kyle Busch win the race?
Judging by the final few laps, the fact that he was racing Truex to the checkers and not a driver more inclined to punt him aside. Busch was strong all day, and he was in the right place at the right time. He didn’t get a great final restart, but he didn’t have to. Hamlin moved Elliott for him, Busch moved Hamlin, and the driver of the No. 11 car was too busy stuffing Ryan Blaney into the inside wall on the Frontstretch to get back to Busch. The end was wild, and Busch was in the right place to use that to his advantage. He did everything right at the end, and earned the W.
How… far off the pace is Hendrick Motorsports?
While Elliott was running the best race he’s driven in his career, his run served to show how far off his teammates are. Earnhardt Jr. fought his car all day for his 11th-place result. Jimmie Johnson, who’s probably the best pure driver at this track among this field, delivered a lackluster race even before getting swept up in the crash as he crossed the finish-line. Johnson led a handful of laps, after pulling some solid pit strategy early, but he didn’t have a top-10 car. That in itself should be a warning bell.
Chevrolet moves to a new car in 2018, so there’s opportunity to catch up, but needing to catch up is a position the organization hasn’t been in for more than 20 years. The question then has to become whether they know how, especially with a crop of young talent coming in 2018.