Anger, frustration flare after Martinsville Cup playoff race

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Name-calling, flashing double birds and a chorus of boos filled the air Sunday night after 501 laps at Martinsville Speedway.

Call it the pressure of the playoffs, a long season coming to an end or just a genuine dislike for one another, but drivers were on edge during chaotic final laps that saw contact for the lead and contact after the checkered flag waved.

Alex Bowman won to Denny Hamlin’s disgust. They hit with eight laps to go, spinning Hamlin out of the lead. Hamlin still advanced to next week’s Championship 4, but that did little to quell his anger.

“He’s just a hack,” Hamlin said of Bowman to NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after the race. “Just an absolute hack. He gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week. He’s (expletive) terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.”

Less than three hours after the race, Bowman was selling T-shirts with “HACK” on it.

Before the marketing pitch, Bowman explained what happened with Hamlin.

“Hate that we got into (Hamlin),” Bowman said. “Unintentional. I just got underneath him and spun him out. I’d be mad, too. I get it. But he’s been on the other side of that enough to understand.”

Bowman noted that Hamlin wrecked him last year at Texas.

“Texted me and apologized,” Bowman said. “Said he’d give me a ride on his jet. I don’t know. We’re even, I guess, after that. He crashed the heck out of me there. He got loose underneath me, exact same thing just on a bigger racetrack.

“Yeah, sarcasm there, obviously. Just my point is the shoe has been on the other foot. Like we’ve been on both sides of it.”

Hamlin showed his displeasure by driving his car to Bowman’s as Bowman prepared to do celebratory burnouts. Hamlin nosed his car against Bowman’s and flashed a pair of middle fingers.

Bowman remained in his car, unsure what would happen next.

NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500
Denny Hamlin showed his anger at Alex Bowman by blocking and nosing his car to Bowman’s after the race. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“Have you ever been to Bowman Gray Stadium?” Bowman said, referring to the track known for tight racing and temper tantrums on the track.

“I’ve gone there and watched. That’s what it felt like. When they had that TV show with the mods running there, I watched the heck out of that. It was really entertaining then. Not so entertaining when you’re living it.

“Just didn’t want to be a part of that, make us both look dumb. So, I just tried to not be a part of it. I wasn’t going to try to do stuff like that. That’s not who I am.”

When Hamlin’s interview was played on the track’s P.A. system, a chorus of boos cascaded toward the Virginia driver.

Later, Hamlin was asked about his reaction to being booed by fans in his home state.

“It’s just Chase Elliott fans,” said Hamlin, who earned their ire four years when he spun Elliott out of the lead at Martinsville. “They don’t think straightly.”

Elliott was told what Hamlin said and asked his reaction.

“I’m going to lose so much sleep tonight,” Elliott said in jest. “I might not sleep at all. That’s how concerned I am (smiling).”

My fans don’t care either, by the way.”

Kyle Busch had sharper words for Brad Keselowski after the race. Busch was not happy with Keselowski’s final move as they raced for second.

Keselowski had been aggressive late in the race, needing to win. Instead, he finished third and didn’t advance to the Championship 4 in his final season with car owner Roger Penske.

Busch did not appreciate Keselowski’s driving on the final lap.

“He drills my ass coming out of (Turn) 4 for no reason,” Busch said. “Where was he going? What was he going to do? Spin me out?

“He was trying to do a Harvick is what he was trying to do (Kevin Harvick spun Busch on the last lap of last year’s Martinsville playoff race). For what? For second place? To do what? He wasn’t going to transfer through with that. Freaking (R-word). So stupid. I don’t understand these guys.

“I should beat the shit out of him right now is what I should do, but that doesn’t do me any good either.”

Why not?

“I’ve already had to pay enough fines in my lifetime,” Busch said. “I’m sure I’ll get another one.”

Busch later tweeted an apology for using the R-word.

Asked about the contact with Busch after the race, Keselowski said: “I don’t know what he was thinking. He was mad at something. He was mad at himself? He was mad at me? I don’t sweat that.”

He was among the few who felt that way.

Elliott was spun after contact from Keselowski, but Elliott took the blame for that.

“I was racing him hard on the outside,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t super surprised that he made a mistake. As hard as he hit me, I knew he just didn’t clean me out on purpose. I figured he wheel hopped or something. I haven’t seen it. Really, moving on was all that mattered.

“I had made some bad choices on adjustments, kind of got us behind. The real reason that happened was because I made a bad decision on what to do to our car. We started playing defense. When you start playing defense, you typically start crashing a lot of times, especially when guys need to win.”

Martin Truex Jr. knows the feeling. He finished fourth and could joke afterward about a late incident that sent him into the wall and had him questioning what he was to do after someone hit him.

He was calmer later after joining Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Elliott in next weekend’s title race at Phoenix.

“Got slammed into the wall,” he said. “I don’t know. I have no idea how we finished fourth. I’m going to buy a lottery ticket on the way home.”

Even a winning lottery ticket might not make some people happy after Sunday’s race.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.