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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin’s bid to make the Championship 4 field by virtue of a clinching Martinsville Speedway victory instead of math boiled down to a final handful of laps and an untimely nudge from Alex Bowman in Sunday’s Xfinity 500.
Hamlin made the title field for a third consecutive year with a rocky 24th-place finish in the Cup Series Playoffs’ Round of 8 finale, avoiding elimination by eight points. But Bowman’s role as the antagonist with a Lap 493 bump that sent his No. 11 Toyota spinning out of contention drew Hamlin’s ire — both with post-checkered flag contact and sharp words in all subsequent interviews.
“He’s just a hack. Just an absolute hack,” Hamlin said. “He gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it. Obviously he’s got the fast car of the week and he runs 10th. He didn’t want to race us there. We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the race track to give him all the room I could, he still can’t drive.”
Hamlin had rallied from early adversity to take command of the final phase of the race, leading 103 of the final 112 laps. Though he had a points cushion to rely on, Hamlin was in position to advance in style with his sixth Martinsville triumph until Bowman’s late-race pressure crossed the limit.
Hamlin looped around in Turn 3 and he limped home as the next-to-last driver on the lead lap. Bowman rolled on to his fourth win of the season, but his victory celebration on the frontstretch was interrupted by a sideswipe from Hamlin’s No. 11 and later, nose-to-nose contact between the two cars.
Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief, told his driver on the cool-down lap, “However you want to handle that,” before his post-race confrontation, but then tried to calm the waters before it escalated with repeated reminders: “Be smart,” he said, “Big picture.”
Bowman said he had been a fan of reality shows that have captured the rambunctious antics at Bowman Gray Stadium, but only as a spectator. He said Sunday’s cool-down lap felt like being at the Madhouse.
“It was really entertaining then. Not so entertaining when you’re living it,” Bowman said. “Just didn’t want to be a part of that, make us both look dumb. So I just tried to not be a part of it. I wasn’t going to try to do stuff like that. That’s not who I am. Yeah, I understand why he’s mad. I’d be mad, too. I drove off into the corner, got loose, spun him out.
“At the same time, I didn’t do it on purpose. If I did, I’d tell you. That’s part of it.”
Bowman’s eligibility for the Cup Series title had expired three weeks ago with his No. 48 Chevrolet team’s elimination in the Round of 12 finale. He insisted his contact wasn’t intentional and said that he had been on the receiving end of run-ins with Hamlin in the past. He also said he planned to reach out to Hamlin later this week in an effort to smooth out their differences.
Hamlin’s day had been an adventure before the final 10 laps ever arrived. He was forced to drop to the rear of the field for the start after his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota failed pre-race inspection twice. A pit-road speeding penalty during the team’s first pit stop erased a chunk of Hamlin’s progress in moving forward.
Each time, Hamlin drove back — enough so that he finished in the money for points at the end of Stage 2. The resilience was one thing, but the outcome still left a bitter pill.
“Racing with integrity in this sport is all but dead,” Gabehart told NASCAR.com. “So what they’re going to do when they don’t pass you is they’re just going to keep driving harder and harder and harder until they’re in absolutely over their head, which is then going to wreck you. Then there’s going to be no penalties, no discipline for it, it’s going to be cheered.”
Indeed, a commotion went up from the grandstands when Hamlin’s No. 11 went akilter in the final laps. And Hamlin’s post-race comments on the Martinsville public-address system were shouted down by the boisterous crowd — boos on Halloween, no less.
“It’s just Chase Elliott fans, man. They don’t think straight,” Hamlin said, with a nod to the reaction he received from spinning out NASCAR’s reigning most popular driver at the same spot on the Martinsville oval in 2017. “… They’re going to boo the (expletive) out of me next week, I can tell you that.”
Regardless of how his race was received, Hamlin has another shot at his first Cup Series championship in next Sunday’s season finale (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). He’ll compete with JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr. plus Hendrick Motorsports stablemates Elliott and Kyle Larson in the year-ending event at Phoenix Raceway.
Gabehart half-chuckled when asked when the No. 11 team might turn the page on this Sunday’s drama and put Phoenix in full focus.
“Listen, we drove from 38th to the front, 38th to the front again, led the entire last stage,” Gabehart said. “Our 750 (horsepower) program is stout, so we’re ready. This is nothing but motivation for next week.”