MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Chase Elliott paced the final Cup practice Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, turning a 97.542 mph lap on the 0.526-mile oval.
Teammate Alex Bowman was second fastest, and Jimmie Johnson made it a sweep of the top three speeds for Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, which have been winless since Elliott’s win last October at Kansas Speedway..
The win is Busch’s 199th across NASCAR’s three national series.
Busch has won all three races he’s entered at ISM Raceway since the start-finish line was relocated last November. His first attempt at 200 will be Saturday’s Xfnity race at Auto Club Speedway. He’s entered in both Xfinity and Cup races next weekend.
Fuel mileage was in question for many of the leaders at the end, including Busch.
“I knew going back before we went green (with 74 laps to go) we were going to be right on the verge,” Busch told Fox. “You got to go race hard first then you’ve got to worry about fuel afterwards. Once I got there and once I got to Blaney I was able to kind of save a little bit. Tried to take care of my tires again for the traffic we had to get through, make sure I had enough fuel to make it to the end.
“Man, this makes last week feel so much stupider.”
Busch was close to the weekend sweep last weekend at Las Vegas before a pit penalty for speeding early in the Cup race got in the way and he placed third.
“We’ll just take what we got here today at ISM Raceway,” Busch said.
WHO HAD GOOD DAY: Martin Truex Jr. earned his best Phoenix finish in 27 starts. Previous best was third … Kyle Larson placed sixth for his best finish of the season. He had finished 12th the last two races … Aric Almirola earned his first top five of the season. He has bettered his result in each race this season … Denny Hamlin earned his first top five since winning the Daytona 500.
WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Erik Jones placed 29th after he lost his right-rear tire and spun on Lap 39 … Brad Keselowski placed 19th after he lost his right-front tire and made contact with the wall in Stage 1 … Michael McDowell was eliminated on Lap 160 when he hit the Turn 3 wall after his throttle got stuck and he had to jam on the brakes … Alex Bowman had two incidents, with the second eliminating him on Lap 193 … Chase Elliott placed 14th after a start violation to the begin the race and then a spin from a loose wheel on Lap 219.
NOTABLE: Kyle Busch is the only driver to start the year with four top 10s. He also earned his sixth consecutive top 10 … Quin Houff placed 30th and Bayley Currey placed 31st in their series debuts.
WHAT’S NEXT: Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway at 3:30 p.m. ET on March 17 on Fox
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Long: Emotions boil in Phoenix, providing spark for NASCAR
Michael McDowell’s actions can be questioned, but his explanation for the fight with Daniel Suarez on Friday was what NASCAR fans have waited to hear.
“It’s emotions,” McDowell said.
“That’s just the way it is,” McDowell said.
It was that way in NASCAR all the way to the 1990s before the sport gentrified to placate sponsors. The trade-off for money was losing one’s soul.
The sport seeks to reclaim its spirit and return to those rougher ways. That doesn’t mean going all the way back to the untamed “Wild West” days. But it’s OK for a driver to show their anger. And many have in recent years.
The fight at Phoenix between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell — during qualifying of all things — illustrates the heightened tensions this season.
NASCAR’s season of drama could be beginning. And that could be a good thing for fans, who want to see more emotion on and off the track.
Suarez was upset with McDowell on Friday for getting in his way during the first round of qualifying. That slowed Suarez, who failed to advance. Suarez will start 28th. McDowell starts 27th.
After the round, Suarez went to McDowell’s car to express his displeasure. McDowell, upset because he felt Suarez tried to wreck him, shoved Suarez to trigger the scuffle.
They soon became entangled before Suarez threw McDowell to the ground. McDowell’s crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, rushed in and shoved Suarez onto the hood of McDowell’s car. Suarez tried to kick McDowell while still on the car.
Suarez said afterward that McDowell’s actions hurt him for the race. Suarez’s team now has a later pick for pit stalls, which are selected in order of starting position. And Suarez will have to start deeper in the field in what is a short race, lasting 312 miles.
In a short race, that could be hard to overcome. Plus, drivers talk about the challenges of the “dirty air” of running behind a competitor. Starting deeper will provide a greater challenge for Suarez.
So it was understandable why he was upset when he headed to McDowell’s car on pit road.
This is what NASCAR has sought and tried to foster since the “Boys, have at it” years to now (NASCAR did not call either driver to the hauler Friday). Fans complain that drivers are too weary of upsetting sponsors by their actions. That mattered little to McDowell or Suarez.
Logano was mad at McDowell for pushing the Toyota of Kyle Busch on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of Logano. McDowell, who had not been enamored with how Ford drivers raced him in that event, said after that race that “my team doesn’t pay me to push Joey Logano to a win.”
McDowell isn’t the only driver who has been at the subject of driver frustrations.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has upset a fellow competitor in each of the first three races. Logano was angered by a move Stenhouse made during the Daytona 500 and said on his radio: “Ricky Stanhkouse. God. He sucks.”
Truex was furious with Stenhouse, who was a lap down, for not getting out of his way as Truex attempted to chase down leader (and eventual winner) Brad Keselowski at Atlanta. Truex finished second but left convinced he could have won had he been able to get around Stenhouse sooner. Stenhouse discounted Truex’s argument.
Last week, Stenhouse and Erik Jones raced each other as if they were at Martinsville instead of Las Vegas.
Friday, Truex could enjoy the show. He was a fan as he watched McDowell and Suarez rumble.
Had Truex ever seen a fight on pit road during qualifying?
“I hate qualifying second,” Elliott said. “I look forward to Sunday. At least we have a good place to start. I really would have liked to get a pole outside a speedway track, so we’ll try again next week.”
NOTES: The No. 2 Ford of Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski twice failed pre-qualifying inspection and was docked 15 minutes in Saturday’s final practice, plus team engineer Brandon Pope was ejected for the remainder of the weekend.
Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski fastest in Friday’s lone Cup practice at Phoenix