Moments after taking the checkered flag Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Alex Bowman had a visitor join him on the front stretch.
Denny Hamlin, whom Bowman bumped out of the lead with eight laps to go before winning in overtime, drove toward Bowman’s car. Bowman spun out of Hamlin’s way and his car briefly locked front bumpers with Hamlin’s before Hamlin backed up and drove off.
As the confrontation played out, Hamlin’s team radio chimed: “Be smart, Denny. Be smart. Big picture, here. Big picture.”
Indeed, Bowman may have won Sunday. But Hamlin has a chance to win something bigger.
Hamlin (finished 24th), reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott (finished 16th) and Martin Truex Jr. (finished fourth) all clinched spots in the Championship 4 next week at Phoenix Raceway. They join Kyle Larson (finished 14th), who was the first to clinch by winning two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway.
But having an opportunity to finally claim his first Cup title didn’t keep Hamlin from lighting into Bowman.
“He’s just a hack,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “He’s just an absolute hack. He gets his ass kicked every week by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity and he takes it, but obviously, he’s got the fastest car every week and he runs 10th.
“He didn’t want to race us there. We had a good, clean race. I moved up as high as I could on the race track to give him all the room I could and he still can’t drive.”
As for Bowman, he maintained that his contact with Hamlin wasn’t intentional.
“I just got loose in,” he told NBC Sports. “I got in too deep, knocked him out of the way and literally let him have the lead back, so for anybody that wants to think I was trying to crash him, that obviously wasn’t the case considering I literally gave up the lead at Martinsville to give it back to him.
“He’s been on the other side of that. He’s crashed guys here for wins. I hate doing it. Obviously, I don’t want to crash somebody and I just got loose underneath and spun him out.”
The Bowman-Hamlin clash set up overtime. Kyle Busch, needing a win to advance to Phoenix, lined up alongside Bowman on the front row for the restart.
But Bowman was able to clear Kyle Busch for the lead, and on the final lap, Kyle Busch couldn’t reel Bowman back in. Coming to the checkered flag, Brad Keselowski made contact with Kyle Busch off Turn 4. A second instance of contact between them sent Busch around in Turn 1.
Busch lost the final Championship 4 spot to Truex (finished fourth) by three points. Also eliminated from the playoffs were Keselowski (finished third), Joey Logano (finished 10th) and Ryan Blaney (finished 11th).
“We just missed,” Kyle Busch told NBC Sports. “Last week, that’s where we lost all the ground and we could’ve come in here with 15 more points and we would’ve been fine on the cut but it just wasn’t it. It wasn’t meant to be.
“Obviously, it was Truex’s day. We had a Hail Mary opportunity at the end and it just didn’t materialize.”
Truex survived a tense finish to his race to earn a ticket to Phoenix.
On Lap 377, he reported a loose wheel but the caution came out a few laps later, saving him from having to pit for it under green.
At Lap 450, his car took left-front damage while racing Keselowski for fourth position. Then, at Lap 471, contact from Kurt Busch put him into the backstretch wall.
Truex and Kyle Busch were tied on the cutline with 10 laps to go. But Truex passed Kurt Busch for seventh place with seven laps to go. That put Truex ahead of Kyle Busch before Bowman and Hamlin’s incident sent the race to OT.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott
STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Elliott’s 16th-place finish didn’t represent his dominance Sunday. He led a race-high 289 laps and clinched his Championship 4 berth mid-race after sweeping both stages. With that, Hendrick Motorsports will have two drivers in the title race at Phoenix.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Team Penske failed to put any of their three drivers into the title race despite a valiant late run from Keselowski. Logano and Blaney largely struggled throughout the afternoon.
NOTABLE: Elliott (289 laps led), Larson (103 laps led), Hamlin (77 laps led) combined to lead 469 of 501 laps Sunday. None of them finished inside the top 10.
NEXT: NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Phoenix Raceway – Sunday, Nov. 3, 3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium