NASCAR wants more drama and got it at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Many people will disagree with what Denny Hamlin did with his car in the final laps Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, squarely hitting Chase Elliott in the rear bumper and wrecking him on the way to what Hamlin had hoped would earn him a spot among the four finalists in the season finale.

But few would argue with two things he said:

"All is fair in love and war when it comes to [advancing to] Homestead."

"NASCAR is loving life right now, for sure."

The quotes are accurate, as heard among the showers of boos directed at Hamlin (a Virginia native!) and cheers toward Elliott after a final nine laps of madness that made sitting through the cold and overcast day worth it for the fans.

The craziness of Martinsville Speedway is just what NASCAR wanted. No driver should fear any penalties, as Elliott wrecked Hamlin on the cool-down lap. NASCAR wants chaos. It wants fans to gravitate toward the young drivers such as Elliott.

This is the game, one of three race rounds in which winning trumps anything else. Don't hate the players. NASCAR has hedged its hopes that more days like Sunday will allow it to stop the free fall of attendance and ratings declines.

"I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race," an angry Elliott said afterward. "I don't know what his problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn't raced him dirty all day long."

If Elliott could be happy about anything, it's that Hamlin didn't win. NASCAR also has one of its most polarizing figures locked into the four finalists at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch emerged with the win.

The fans at motorsports' most famous paper-clip-shaped track had seen the No. 24 run well at Martinsville but with Jeff Gordon behind the wheel. Elliott, looking for his first career Cup win in 74 starts and a spot in the championship at Homestead, door-slammed Brad Keselowski as they were side-by-side to take the lead on a restart with three laps left in regulation.

One lap later, Hamlin plowed into the back of Elliott for the lead in Turn 3. On the ensuing restart, Hamlin had the edge on Busch, who then shoved Hamlin out of the way on the way to the victory.

"Life ain't fair, buddy," Busch said. "What's fair and what's not is irrelevant. When it comes down to the end of the race and you're racing for a win like that and you see the white flag waving and the door kind of cracks its way open a little bit, you've got to put your foot in and go get it.

"That was our opportunity to punch our ticket to go to Homestead."

As Busch celebrated, Elliott fumed and rammed into Hamlin on the cool-down lap. The two drivers got out of their cars and exchanged words before driving to pit road.

The crowd wanted the feel-good story for Elliott and felt Hamlin did him wrong.

"I tried to move him out of the way, and there just wasn't enough grip on the race track for him to save it," Hamlin said. "We can play favorites if we want, but there's a ticket to Homestead at stake."

As NASCAR experimented with two-day weekends to save teams money and see if fans would like a more condensed schedule that included qualifying earlier Sunday -- and as much as NASCAR has celebrated the final season of driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- races like Sunday will do more for the sport than anything else.

"I got up in there and rooted him out of the way a little bit. ... I was able to get through there, luckily, somehow," Busch said. "I don't know how."

NASCAR designed its playoff system to create such incentive to wreck drivers and win. Don't think it didn't have this exact scenario in mind.

NASCAR wants fans hating some drivers, albeit a fan threatening Hamlin on pit road after the race and being whisked away by security might be a little more than NASCAR bargained for. It wants reporters nearly getting hit by thrown bottles of soda as they interviewed Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson by the car afterward.

As long as no one gets hurt -- beyond bruised feelings and egos -- this system was totally designed for just this type of emotion.

"Certainly, the three‑race format and the pressure to win is so high that you see guys make some pretty desperate moves, pretty high‑risk moves, and you saw a lot of that today," Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said.

Even as much as NASCAR tries to manufacture drama, it needed some help. It got it from Joey Logano, who tried to ride out a flattening tire after contact, battling for third late in the race. If he pits, his Penske teammate Keselowski possibly cruises to the win. He didn't and ended up spinning to have seven laps left in regulation.

To be fair, if Logano could have finished ahead of other playoff drivers and Keselowski for some reason didn't win, that could have helped Keselowski. And it was refreshing that there apparently wasn't a team order nor team concern in the Logano camp.

"I was surprised [he didn't pit]," Busch said. "When it's rubbing that bad, you know you've got about five, six, seven laps. ... What's crazy is I actually smelt it go from rubber to cords and knew it was coming. I knew he didn't have much time left."

The smell after the race was that Hamlin stunk up the show with his plowing through Elliott. Hamlin, defiant while on pit road, tweeted an apology later Sunday night.

"It's a life lesson and hope no kids out there who aspire to race think that's the way you should do it," Hamlin posted.

Say what? Why shouldn't he or anyone else not do what he did in this system?

Because paybacks are a bear, most likely. And unethical racing will result in vigilante justice.

"I'm cool with it, but when we have his back tires jacked up going into Turn 3 at Texas -- that will be a bigger corner -- then just be good with that, too," said Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson.

Gustafson and Elliott no doubt were the biggest losers as far as the results. Elliott still seeks that elusive first win and now sits 26 points behind the cutoff with two races left in the semifinal round.

"What do you do?" Gustafson said. "You race as hard as you can. Things happen."

This is what you do: Respond in-kind and see who blinks first: the competitors or NASCAR.

"Bent fenders, hurt feelings," said fourth-place finisher Kevin Harvick. "I love it."