The contenders for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship have been finalised after Alex Bowman won the final cut-off race of the season amidst a controversial ending.
Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin will fight for the ’21 championship at Phoenix though the latter was still irate following the chequered flag despite making the cut.
The driver of the No11 Toyota had been the race leader heading into the final laps and battling with Bowman. Contact with the No48 sent the Joe Gibbs Racing driver spinning out of contention for the win. He fumed post-race, preventing any burnouts from the winner and calling the Hendrick Motorsports driver a “hack”.
With Larson already into the finale by virtue of two back-to-back victories in the Round of 8, just three spots remained available though Elliott and Hamlin were the most comfortable heading into the race, 34 and 32 points above the cut line respectively.
Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney began the afternoon just one point below the cut line with Brad Keselowski five points back from there. Penske team-mate Joey Logano was in a must-win situation 26 points below the cut-off.
Hamlin’s afternoon was already made difficult following a failure during pre-race inspection and was forced to start from the rear. He was almost involved in the first caution incident as Ryan Newman spun just ahead of him on lap 72.
Hendrick’s Elliott and Larson headed up Stage 1 with a 1-2 ahead of Martin Truex Jr and Hendrick team-mate William Byron and Keselowski. Elliott doubled-up and won Stage 2 to seal his ticket to Phoenix but the afternoon was far from over for the remaining contenders.
Into the closing 50 laps and Hamlin led the field from Bowman, Elliott, Keselowski and Truex until contact with Byron resulted in front-left damage for the latter, causing a tyre rub.
With 46 to go, Keselowski began to get aggressive and turned Elliott around to take third and bring out the first of several quick-fire yellows. With Hamlin leading and Truex ahead of Busch on the track, the No18 was outside the top four in the standings with 40 to go.
Trying to take Keselowski and Bowman three-wide for second into Turn 3 with 30 laps remaining cost Truex momentum and he was shuffled to the outside and dropped into the clutches of Busch. More contact on the following lap with the No10 of Aric Almirola sent the Toyota up into the wall and down to the fringes of the top 10.
Despite the brush with the wall, Truex opted against pitting in order to gain track position, the first of two inspired moves for the No19 team in the closing laps.
With 23 laps to go, Bowman made a lunge for the lead but pushed Hamlin out of the bottom groove to do so. The 48 driver forfeited the place at the next corner to allow Hamlin back into the lead but their truce was momentary.
With seven to go and the top two now clear in front, Bowman made another move for the lead that resulted in contact but this time, the No11 car was spun around, forcing an overtime finish.
A gain of several spots by virtue of the choose rule moved Truex from the lower reaches of the top 10 up to fourth, picking to start in the outside lane for the final restart with fellow Chase contenders Keselowski and Busch ahead.
Bowman successfully defended the lead to win in overtime but any celebrations were cut short by a fuming Hamlin, who drove his car into the No48 post-race to vent his frustrations.
“I just got loose in, I got in too deep, knocked him out of the way and literally let him have the lead back,” Bowman said after stepping out of the car.
“For anybody that wants to think I was trying to crash him, obviously that 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 I just got underneath him, spun him out.
“Regardless, we get a friggin’ grandfather clock which is pretty special.”
Despite being the victim of the move, Hamlin was met with a chorus of boos as he gave his side of the story on pit road post-race.
The Toyota driver didn’t hold back in his assessment of Bowman’s transgression.
“He’s just a hack, just an absolute hack,” Hamlin said post-race of Bowman.
“He gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week. He’s f******* terrible. He’s just terrible. He sees one opportunity, he takes it.
“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, he still can’t drive.”
With an incredible nine victories already this season, Larson heads into the Phoenix race as the favourite for the Championship though team-mate Chase Elliott put in his performance of the season last year to take his maiden NASCAR Cup title.
Hamlin will be racing for his first championship while Truex will be aiming to add a second title to his CV next time out.