MARTINSVILLE, Virginia – As the boos reigned down from the Martinsville Speedway grandstands, Chase Elliott stepped away from an awaiting TV interview and ambled toward the noise.
The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet began waving his arms up and down, beckoning the crowd for more juice – and jeers.
Their target was Southwest Virginia’s sudden Public Enemy No. 1 and driver of the No. 11 Toyota, Denny Hamlin, who was being interviewed on a large videoboard to the great derision of several thousand fans who lingered after the jaw-dropping, car-slamming conclusion of the First Data 500.
“These fans have been coming here for a long time, and they know when someone gets wrecked, and when someone has a nice fight for the lead, and that wasn’t one,” Elliott said. “It was unnecessary.”
Three laps from getting his ticket to the championship round punched, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was punted from the lead entering the third turn on the 0.526-mile oval. Elliott had taken the lead from Brad Keselowski during a restart on Lap 497 of a scheduled 500 laps before the contact with Hamlin, who led the next seven laps before getting moved aside by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on the final lap and taking seventh.
Elliott managed to finish in 27th, but his title chances are win or bust in the next two races at Texas and Phoenix – which is why he rammed Hamlin’s car multiple times on the cooldown lap.
That prompted both drivers to exit their cars and engage in a heated argument on the backstretch (video above) before driving back to the pits for interviews.
“He said somebody was pushing him, but it wasn’t two car lengths between him and the next guy,” Elliott said. “So, my momma always said if you don’t have anything nice (to say), not to say anything at all. So, it’s not even worth my time. We’ll just go on to Texas.
“We had a great car today and we had an opportunity. We had a good restart there at the end and felt like I was doing what I needed to do. And I can’t control his decisions and whatever the hell that was.”
Crew chief Alan Gustafson chalked it up to being an incident involving high stakes and the shortest track on the circuit.
“It’s pretty intense,” he said. “A lot on the line, so anything can happen. It’s just racing at Martinsville. A lot on the line. I think we had one of the best cars here and came home with nothing.
“I’m cool with it, but when we have (Hamlin’s) back tires jacked up going into probably (Turn) 3 at Texas … that will be a bigger corner. Then just be good with that, too.”
Elliott again was good enough to break through for his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series. Rebounding from a miserable test at Martinsville two weeks ago, the team brought a new Chevy, and Elliott responded. He qualified third and led 123 laps.
“He’s done an incredible job,” Gustafson said of Elliott. “It’s unfortunate that race wins have eluded us, because I think that’s the only thing we haven’t been able to do this year. We’ve done everything else. I thought he did a great job.”
Elliott had to get rough, too, making contact on his pass of Keselowski (who had taken the outside lane on the restart). Keselowski skidded up the track but held on for fourth.
“The thing we all like about this track is you can race people hard and have contact and not crash them,” Gustafson said. “Look, I know Brad isn’t happy about what Chase did to Brad. I’m sure he’s not. I’m sure the team is not. But at the end of the day, he didn’t wreck him.
“But what can you do? You race as hard as you can. Things happen.”
Elliott said his battle with Keselowski was “as clean as we could race each other … a hard fought battle for the lead,” while with Hamlin “that was not a battle at all. That was just a wreck.”
“What he did was unnecessary,” Elliott said of Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville who later tweeted an apology. “The guy’s been doing this long enough. He’s won a lot of races here. There’s no reason for that. He knows the deal, how this race works, and he knows how Martinsville is.
“I didn’t race him dirty at all. I don’t know what his problem was. What happened in Turn 3 was over the line.”