MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — They cheered him after each of his five victories at Martinsville Speedway, and many mores times as he ran near the front at his historic half-mile track through the years.
Sunday, under the lights, fans booed Denny Hamlin after he wrecked Chase Elliott for the lead in the final laps, costing Elliott a chance for his first Cup victory and a spot in the championship race next month in Miami.
Those upset at Hamlin got their revenge. Kyle Busch moved Hamlin, his teammate, up the track on the final lap to win the First Data 500 to earn a spot in the championship round.
After the race, Elliott forced Hamlin’s car up into the backstretch wall. They both climbed from their cars and had a heated exchange.
“He said I wrecked him,’’ said Hamlin, who finished seventh. “Obviously Ray Charles saw that. Obviously it wasn’t intentional. I wanted to move him out of the way. It was just not enough grip on the race track for him to save it. He washed (Brad Keselowski) up the race track as well. We can play favorites if we want. Unfortunately, this is a ticket to Homestead at stake.’’
Said Elliott of Hamlin’s late move: “It’s unnecessary and uncalled for. I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race.’’
Elliott moved Keselowski, who was leading, up the track to take the top spot on Lap 497. Hamlin pushed Elliott, sending Elliott spinning and Hamlin into the lead on Lap 498, creating a caution. Busch took the lead from Hamlin on the last lap, which ended with several cars crashing.
“Everybody wrecked everyone at the end,’’ Hamlin said. “It was complete … chaos. I got into the back of him and he spun out, and somebody got in the back of me and I wrecked too. It was just a mess in the end. Everybody was doing the exact same thing. I hate it for his team. I understand he had a win for a long time coming. This is a ticket for Homestead. I’m not sitting here saying that I wrecked him on purpose. I tried to move him out of the way and (he) spun out.’’
Hamlin’s interview on NBCSN was played on the track’s speaker system. A crescendo of boos rained upon him from the stands.
“I don’t care,’’ he said of the boos. “I don’t care about that. I’m just trying to get to Homestead.’’
Hamlin didn’t express much displeasure about Busch’s move on him for the win.
“I can’t judge too much,’’ Hamlin said. “I spun (Elliott) out. I don’t know. I didn’t think he’d move me, but you never know. It’s all fair in love and war when it comes to Homestead.’’
Hamlin said what happened in the final laps was simply short track racing.
“Everybody is trying to battle for their own position,’’ he said. “I watched a Late Model race here a month ago that was just like the exact same thing. You come to a race track like this, you get late-race restarts and you know a Cup series championship chance is on the line, that can happen.’’
He later added on Twitter: