MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Sunday was what NASCAR drivers, series officials, team executives and former racers forecasted when they introduced stage racing in January.
“The stages are going to bring a lot of excitement for the drivers and the fans.’’ — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“The single-file, high-line ride out, those days are gone.’’ — Brad Keselowski
“When a race fan buys a ticket to go to a race, that race fan deserves to see a race that matters. That race fan deserves to see a race that’s going to impact the championship.’’ — NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton
The point was that with points earned based on finishes in the first two stages, drivers would take more chances and create action that might not have been seen in the past at such junctures.
What happened at the end of Stage 2 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway could define the playoffs … or at least define what drivers will accept in the closing laps.
Kyle Busch was dominant in the second stage and seemed headed toward a stage victory.
He admits that would have been critical to have won and earned a playoff point since his team has yet to win a race this season. He also made note of Joe Gibbs Racing’s lack of wins in the playoffs. JGR has three victories in the last 30 playoff races (10 percent), while having won 25 of the 78 regular-season races (32.1 percent) during that same time.
As the end of Stage 2 neared Sunday, Busch came upon a group of cars trying to stay on the lead lap. There were Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Clint Bowyer among others. They weren’t going to make it easy on Busch, who had a comfortable lead on Chase Elliott as he approached the cars.
Busch worked his way through some of the cars and ran alongside Dillon on the backstretch on the final lap of the stage. If Busch lapped Dillon, Stenhouse would lose the free pass position because he had been passed moments earlier.
Stenhouse responded by running up to the back of Busch’s car entering Turn 3 and pushing the leader up the track. Stenhouse got by to remain on the lead lap (he went on to finish the race 10th), and Elliott nipped Busch to win the stage and collect that one playoff point.
“It was as hard as I could drive,’’ Stenhouse said. “I got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of. I had to stay on the lead lap.’’
He had extra incentive because he knew a caution was coming. Stenhouse had to make his move then.
His action left Busch lamenting that lost point and thinking of the future.
“When you got the leader to the outside and you keep banging him off the corner, that’s pretty disrespectful but do whatever you want, it’s going to come back and bite you one of these days,’’ Busch said. “We’ve just got to always remember that race car drivers are like elephants, they remember everything.’’
Busch knows how valuable bonus points can be for the playoffs.
When he won the 2015 championship, Busch made it out of the first round based on bonus points for wins. If he hadn’t had those, he would not have advanced and there would have been a different champion that season. Last year, Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, advanced to the third round instead of Austin Dillon based on a tiebreaker.
“That’s what this format is supposed to be about is having moments like that,’’ winner Brad Keselowski said. “Whether you agree with specific moves is really neither here nor there. But when you put things on the line, when you put more on the line throughout the race, you get more moments like that, and I think in the end, the fans win and the sport wins.’’
Everyone won Sunday but Kyle Busch.