The sun went down, the new lights came on, and all hell broke loose at Martinsville Speedway.
In a wild overtime finish that took Sunday's First Data 500 to 505 laps at the .526-mile short track, Kyle Busch beat Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader Martin Truex Jr. to the stripe by .141 seconds to take the checkered flag and earn a spot in the Nov. 19 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
As Busch crossed the finish line, a multi-car wreck behind him scrambled the running order and left a parking lot of mangled cars on the frontstretch.
But that was simply the final act in a drama that saw a succession of Playoff contenders lose excellent chances to win the first event in the Round of 8.
Chase Elliott held the lead with three laps left in regulation distance when Denny Hamlin dumped Elliott's #24 Chevrolet in Turn 3, causing the 11th caution and sending the race into overtime.
Ten laps earlier, Brad Keselowski appeared headed for victory and a guaranteed ticket to Homestead before Joey Logano developed a severe tire rub after contact from Busch's #18 Toyota in Turn 1.
Logano spun off Ryan Blaney's front bumper when the tire went flat in Turn 2, and Elliott grabbed the lead after the restart on Lap 497, with Hamlin following. Hamlin punted Elliott a lap later, and hard feelings continued after the race, with Elliott running Hamlin's Toyota into the outside wall on the cool-down lap.
Elliott's wreck set the stage for Busch to win for the second time at Martinsville, the fifth time this season and the 43rd time in his career. After Hamlin cleared Busch on the overtime restart, Busch cut to the inside and wheel-hopped into Hamlin's Camry, forcing his JGR teammate up the track.
Hamlin fell to seventh at the finish behind Clint Bowyer in third, Keselowski in fourth, Kevin Harvick in fifth and Trevor Bayne in sixth.
"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," Busch said. "I got down (to the inside lane), and he got into Turn 3 and just pushed up the race track and I knew I had to plug that hole right away cause I was just going to get beat on from behind,
"So I got up in there and rooted him out of the way a little bit, and 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."
Truex retained 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.
"I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race," Elliott said. "I don't know what his problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn't raced him dirty all day long. There was no reason for that, and he comes over and talks to me a second ago and tells me he had somebody pushing him into Turn 3.
"I thought that was funny, because there was nobody within two car lengths of him into Turn 3 behind myself. I don't know what the deal was, but it is so disappointing. We had the best car I've ever had here at Martinsville. And had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead and because of him, we don't."
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.
Notes: Busch led a race-high 184 laps, followed by Elliott (123) and Keselowski (108)... Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 11th in his final run at Martinsville in the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet... After finishing under lights installed this year, Bowyer would like to see a night race at Martinsville. "We should definitely utilize those lights for something other than an (overtime), because it's pretty damn cool under the lights," Bowyer said.
Toyota MENCS Martinsville Victory Lane Quotes - Kyle Busch
KYLE BUSCH, #18 M&M's Halloween Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Finishing Position: 1st
Talk about the win here tonight.
Busch It's just a great win for this whole M&M's Halloween Toyota Camry. Awesome to get to victory lane here at Martinsville. You know I wanted to win Charlotte, Martinsville and Homestead and that'll make us this year's champions, so we've got one more. Just wanted to say our guys did an awesome job preparing this car. We weren't the best all day, but we put ourselves in the right spots there at the end and there was kind of chaos ensuing and none of it was our fault, we just came out on the right end of the stick. Can't say enough about NOS Energy Drinks, Cessna, DVX Sunglasses. My son Brexton's at home, he's not here with us this weekend, so want to say hey to him, we'll see you later tonight buddy. Looking forward to going to Homestead."
With this win, how do you approach the rest of the playoffs heading to Texas and Phoenix?
Busch "We can go out there and race for wins and try to get more of course and just let everybody else have to worry you know, and then not give them a chance to breathe and get their, their heads on their shoulders going into that week at Homestead."
What did you see happen on that final restart?
Busch "No, I wanted to get a better restart, pinch Denny (Hamlin) 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, I got down and he got into turn three and just pushed up the race track and I knew I had to plug that hole right away cause I was just gonna get beat on from behind, so I got up in there and rooted him out of the way a little bit and we dragged raced down the front straightaway and deep into one, 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 (Martin) Truex (Jr.) off of turn four back to the start/finish line."
Take us through those last couple of laps and what you were able to do to take the lead.
Busch "Kind of. I don't know. We just didn't get very good of a restart. I wanted to be on Denny (Hamlin)'s outside and try to pinch him a little bit, but I didn't get a very good restart. Came up turn two, had clean race track, got down behind him and went off into turn three and he pushed up, washed up the race track and I was able to come underneath him and get to the bottom there and then, and root him out of the way a little bit. You know it's time to go and I was getting kind of beat on from behind or it was gonna come. I knew it was gonna come anyways and put a drag race down the front straightaway into turn one and I chattered the rear tires on the brakes getting in there and I slid up into him. I had (Martin) Truex (Jr.) on me there down the backstretch through (turns) three and four. Just knew that I had to get that momentum off of four and came back to the start/finish line. Great day for this whole M&M's team and everybody don't forget Halloween's on Tuesday, so your M&M's candy are going to be a hot commodity, that's for sure. This Toyota was fast. We hung up front all day long. Thanks to NOS Energy Drinks, Cessna, DVX Sunglasses, my son Brexton's at home, so really looking forward to getting home and seeing him tonight."
Bit of a rollercoaster for you today, what was your car doing throughout the race? It seemed like it was really good at times and when it was bad it was just running fourth.
Busch "Yeah, it just - it wouldn't go forward off the corners. We just lacked the ability to put the gas down off the corner and I don't know why. I don't what we changed overnight to hinder that. I felt like we were actually pretty good with that yesterday. When we were out front leading it for that stretch, you know we were pretty good, but that's why Brad (Keselowski) ended up getting by us is I just couldn't touch the gas off the corners at the end of that run. We definitely got to work on a little bit more and see what we can find to be better there."
Another chance at a championship. How big is that?
Busch "It's huge. It's our opportunity to succeed and you know God's given us every opportunity to go do that. Joe and J.D. Gibbs, Coy Gibbs, everybody on this Joe Gibbs Racing team, they're phenomenal. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) and the guys had a great race car for me prepared for this weekend. We tested up here, we came here and we were really good yesterday and we just came out on top today."
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