Alex Bowman was the only driver celebrating after NASCAR set its championship four — and he’s not even racing for the title.
Bowman picked up the victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in the final elimination race ahead of the winner-take-all season finale. Bowman wasn’t eligible to make the championship round, and his overtime victory denied Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski the final spot in the field.
The Cup will be decided next Sunday at sold-out Phoenix Raceway between favorite Kyle Larson and reigning champion Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports and Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. for Joe Gibbs Racing. It will pit a pair of Hendrick Chevrolets against two JGR Toyotas.
“I think the four most deserving teams are probably in the final four,” said Larson, the regular-season champion and title favorite. “I’m proud we were able to do it and look forward to battling everybody next week.”
Ford was locked out of the championship when Keselowski and Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano failed to advance.
Busch finished second to Bowman and Keselowski at last settled for third after a frantic push through the third stage. Truex’s car was damaged in several incidents, and Busch and Keselowski were trying to bump Truex out of the final transfer position.
It led to spirited racing up and down the grid, especially from Keselowski as he tried to bulldoze his way into the championship round for his final race driving for Roger Penske. He and Busch had hard contact after the checkered flag that caused Busch to spin on the cooldown lap, and Busch seethed afterward that he should beat up Keselowski.
His verbal threats were a milder approach than the one taken by JGR teammate Hamlin after Bowman spun Hamlin from the lead with six laps remaining to send the race into overtime.
Hamlin had led 103 laps with victory in sight when Bowman spun him. Hamlin after the race drove his car to the front stretch and parked in front of Bowman to prevent Bowman from a proper celebration on Bowman’s fourth win of the season.
Bowman insisted the contact with Hamlin was accidental and wondered why Hamlin was so angry because Hamlin has done the same to him.
“He crashed me at Texas last year. Texted me and apologized. Said he’d give me a ride on his jet,” Bowman said. “We’re even, I guess, after that. He crashed the heck out of me there. He got loose underneath me, exactly same thing just on a bigger racetrack. My point is the shoe has been on the other foot, we’ve been on both sides of it.”
Hamlin, who already has five Martinsville grandfather clocks, still advanced into the championship on points. But his JGR crew had to radio Hamlin to back off as he confronted Bowman, who gave Hendrick Motorsports its 16th win in 35 races this season and fourth in a row.
“He’s just a hack, just an absolute hack who gets his ass kicked every week by his teammates,” said Hamlin, a Virginia native who audibly did not have any home-crowd support.
The well-filled grandstands erupted in cheers when Bowman spun Hamlin, and then loudly booed him when he was interviewed over the public-address system. Asked afterward whether he was surprised by the fan reaction, Hamlin blamed the most popular driver, Elliott, and predicted the same reaction next week at Phoenix.
“It’s just Chase Elliott fans, man. They don’t think straightly,” Hamlin said.
Elliott shrugged off Hamlin’s critique.
“I’m going to lose so much sleep tonight. I might not sleep at all, that’s how concerned I am,” he smiled. “My fans don’t care either, by the way.”
Hamlin will try for a fourth time to win his first Cup title. He and Larson, the heavy favorite and a nine-race winner this season, have never won a NASCAR championship. Elliott is the reigning champion, and Truex, who had to nurse a wounded Toyota to a fourth-place finish Sunday to stop teammate Busch from bumping him out of the finale, has one previous title.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.