The battle for two prestigious NASCAR Championship Crowns continued this weekend on the famed half-mile paperclip – Martinsville Speedway.
Texas Roadhouse 200
NASCAR’s start to short-track chase weekend began with the stars of the Camping World Truck Series in Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200. Led to the wave of the green flag by Brad Keselowski Racing driver Chase Briscoe, the race lead would quickly change hands as veteran Matt Crafton, who started on the outside pole, found his way to the lead and the Stage 1 win.
Crafton continued to be a contender at the famed ½-mile speedway, until 2016 Camping World Truck Series champion and fellow veteran driver Johnny Sauter pulled ahead of him in the closing laps of Stage 2 to take the win.
Despite both Truck Series veterans’ domination of most of this 200-lap race, it was a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender who frustrated Playoff competitors Crafton and Johnny Sauter by pulling off an unforeseen win in the most important Stage of this race.
After Bayley Currey spun in his No. 50 Chevrolet to bring out the final caution on Lap 182, then-race-leader Crafton chose the inside lane for the restart on Lap 191. This decision gave 19-year-old Noah Gragson the opportunity to pull ahead of this mentor in Turn 4 to drive away with his first Camping World Truck Series victory.
“I knew to myself this morning,” said Gragson. “I knew I could get it done. We got that caution there at the end and I started to wonder if I could actually pass on the outside at Martinsville? Fortunately, I kept telling myself I am going to get that trophy today, and that’s what we did. To be racing here in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, it’s a privilege, and all those hours of hard work have finally paid off.”
Thanks to their Stage wins, both Crafton and Sauter chipped away at Christopher Bell’s series lead, which stands at three points over Sauter and 15 over Crafton with two races left in the Playoffs Round of 6. Ben Rhodes currently holds the fourth and final Playoff transfer position, with Austin Cindric in fifth, 11 points back of Rhodes, and Nemechek in sixth, trailing Rhodes by 32 points going into the next Chase for the Championship race at Texas Motor Speedway.
First Data 500
While shock and awe fell over the short track in Martinsville, VA on Saturday after a rookie grabbed his first victory of the 2017 season, a whole different kind of hell broke loose in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500 race. Following the wave of the green flag that saw the No. 22 of Penske Racing driver Joey Logano leading the way, another outside pole sitter swung into action to take the lead.
After leading 108 laps of this race, Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski drove to both a Stage 1 and Stage 2 win. Although it appeared that Keselowski was headed for victory and a guaranteed ticket to Homestead as the laps wound down in this race, Logano would end his cohort’s chances by developing a flat tire, causing him to spin off of Ryan Blaney’s front bumper when the tire went flat in Turn 2.
This caution gave the No. 24 of Chase Elliott a chance to take the lead after the restart on Lap 497, with Denny Hamlin following. A lap later, Hamlin punted Elliott’s ride out of the way to take the lead. Elliott’s wreck set the stage for the No. 18 of Kyle Busch, who also led a race high 184 laps, to take over the lead and eventually a fifth win this season after a wild overtime finish that took Sunday’s First Data 500 to 505 laps.
As Busch crossed the finish line ahead of his rival Martin Truex, Jr., a multi-car wreck behind him scrambled the running order and left a parking lot of mangled cars on the frontstretch.
“I wanted to get a better restart, pinch Denny down a little bit, but it actually kind of worked out better for me that he got ahead a little bit, gave me a gap,” said Busch. “I got down on the inside lane, and he got into Turn 3 and I knew I had to plug that hole right away because I was just going to get beat on from behind. After I rooted him out of the way a little bit, we drag-raced down the front straightaway and deep into Turn 1; I just wheel-hopped, chattered the rear tires and it was sideways getting in there trying to calm it down with the brakes and everything else. Was able to get through there luckily somehow – I don’t know how – and beat Truex off of Turn 4 back to the start/finish line.”
Despite his runner-up finish, Truex retains the series lead by 17 points over Busch. Elliott, on the other hand, went from likely winner to major casualty in the space of one corner, finishing 27th and falling 26 points below the cut line for the Championship 4, with the cut coming in two weeks at Phoenix. Keselowski is third in the standings, followed by Harvick, who holds a three-point edge over Jimmie Johnson, who ran 12th on Sunday. Blaney is six points behind Harvick and Hamlin is eight back, all but guaranteeing another wild race next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway as the fight for the Championship 4 positions intensifies.
Stay tuned to RacingJunk.com as the Countdown to the NASCAR Championship continues.