It took a post-race fracas on pit road to distract from the dominance of Martin Truex Jr., who led a career-best 464 laps in winning Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway and punched his ticket for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 race.
The 2017 Cup Series champion took the lead from pole winner Denny Hamlin off pit road on Lap 30 under the first of 11 cautions and held it the rest of the way, save for a six-lap stint where Kyle Larson stayed out on old tires near the end of the second 130-lap stage.
Denied victory by Joey Logano’s bump-and-run in last year’s Playoff race at the .526-mile track, Truex won for the first time at the venerable short track, for the seventh time this season and the 26th time in this career.
Byron chased Truex all the way to the checkered flag but couldn’t get close enough to make a move in the final laps.
“I can't believe we just won Martinsville, man,” said Truex, who finished .489 seconds ahead of William Byron after a restart with 24 laps left. “Miami (site of the season finale) is awesome, but we've wanted to win here for a long time.”
As strong as his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was, Truex didn’t expect the level of domination he showed on Sunday.
“I don't think anyone expected that,” said Truex, who opened a 20-point lead over second-place Hamlin in the Playoff standings. “This racetrack, in general, you don't see that. Hats off to my guys. Pit crew was stellar today, and we didn't make many adjustments. We adjusted on early and it came to life, and that was a lot of fun.
“I don't know, maybe now I've got this place figured out. Who knows? But just really proud of everybody, and after last year, we talked earlier, everybody wants to keep talking about last year, and I'm like, ‘We've got work to do.’ I'm just proud of everybody for giving me a race car like that and being able to put it all together today when it counted.”
A post-race discussion between Hamlin and Logano started with civility and ended in a wrestling match between the drivers and their crews. The point of contention was an incident on Lap 458 when Hamlin’s Toyota and Logano’s Ford made side-to-side contact off Turn 4 and Logano car’s banged into the outside wall.
Logano spun in Turn 1 to bring out the 10th caution, and he recovered to finish seventh, but he wanted answers from Hamlin after the race.
“We were having a discussion,” Hamlin said. “Everything was civil, and then, like Joey does, he does a little push and then runs away. So that’s Joey. Scared. He said, ‘Do you want to go?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m here.’ But then he runs away.”
“I just wanted to see what his thoughts were, and it wasn’t quite the answer I was looking for,” said Logano, who initiated the physicality with a light push to Hamlin’s right shoulder.
Seeking his first win in NASCAR’s top series, Byron ran consistently in the top 10 all afternoon but was no match for Truex.
“He was really strong,” said Byron, who had not finished on the lead lap in three previous starts at Martinsville. “I could work my brake bias a little bit in the car and gain a little bit, and then I'd get to him and I'd heat up a lot and then kind of fall back. I don't really know. He was super strong. Our car bounced a little bit on the short run, which was tough to kind of get around. But overall, it was a really good day.
“This isn't a place that I've loved coming to, and it just clicked this weekend, the things we did with the car going into qualifying and then obviously our race. Super excited, but second is not super fun, either. We'll try to get one spot better next time.”
Brad Keselowski ran third, followed by Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch. Kevin Harvick, Logano, Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman completed the top 10.
With Truex locked into the Championship 4—winning a Round of 8 race for the first time—Hamlin, 14th-place finisher Kyle Busch and Logano remain above the cut line for the season finale, with the Playoff field to be cut from eight drivers to four, two races hence at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
Harvick is fifth in the standings, 1 point behind Logano in fourth. Blaney is one point behind Harvick with Larson another nine back. Chase Elliott finished 36th on Sunday, 55 laps down after his rear axle broke on Lap 180, and is 44 points below the cut line—likely needing a victory in one of the next two races to make the Championship 4.