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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

Martinsville Six-Pack: 6 Things We Learned on Sunday

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Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway was a wild and crazy affair that saw Kyle Busch win his third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff race, but only after his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin stuffed Chase Elliott into the Turn 3 wall with two laps to go.

Here’s a fresh six-pack for you – six things we learned on a day marked by cold temperatures and hot tempers.

  1. There will be at least two Toyotas in the final

Kyle Busch’s victory locks him into the Cup championship race Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he and three other drivers TBD will wage a title fight. Whichever one of the four has the best finish at Homestead will be the 2017 Cup champion.

At the moment, Busch is the only driver officially locked in, but Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is virtually assured of making the final. Truex has a 67-point lead over fifth place right now and would be almost impossible to lose that many points in the final two races of this round.

Truex and Busch, both Toyota drivers, have had the best two cars all year and are 1-2 in points right now, so it’s only fitting that they be among the title combatants.

  1. Brad Keselowski is sitting pretty

The 2012 champion came into Martinsville thinking he had to repeat his spring victory to advance to the final. In reality, though, Keselowski is in a good spot — third in points, 29 in points ahead of fifth place.

That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as we saw when an engine failure wiped out a 32-point cushion for Kyle Larson and knocked him out of the playoffs at Kansas. Still, Keselowski is in a very favorable position to make it to the big race.

  1. Denny Hamlin manned up

On the one hand, Denny Hamlin deserves credit for manning up to his mistake and apologizing to Chase Elliott for costing him the victory by dumping him with two laps to go. On the other hand, it was a mistake that was both reckless and dumb. Hamlin, who has been running in Cup full time since 2006, knows better than to race like that.

  1. JJ still in the hunt

Martinsville was another spectacularly mediocre outing for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished 12th at a track where he has won nine times. In seven playoff races so far, Johnson has only one top-five and three top-10 finishes. By Johnson’s own lofty standards, those are craptastic numbers.

And yet, with two races to go in this round, Johnson is only 3 points away from the final transfer spot for Homestead. If Johnson somehow pulls out an eighth title this year, it will be proof positive that he really does have a golden horseshoe wedged up there where the sun don’t shine.

  1. More short tracks

Dear NASCAR: We need more short tracks on the schedule. Period. Signed, Your Loyal Race Fans. OKTHXBAI.

  1. Four guys hunting for last spot

Here’s how I see the title fight shaping up: Kyle Busch is locked in, Martin Truex Jr. is all but locked in and a pair of top 10 or maybe even top 15s in the next two races ought to advance Brad Keselowski to Homestead. That fills three of the final four spots.

Chase Elliott is 26 points behind the cutline and probably will need to win at Texas or Phoenix to advance. Given that he’s never won a race in his career, that could be a tall order.

So that leaves four guys — Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin — battling for the remaining spot at Homestead. The gap from Harvick to Hamlin is just 8 points, so any one of these four could beat out the other three and make it to the title race. And it’s impossible to predict who will prevail.

This much is for certain: It’s going to be an interesting final three weeks of the season.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen is a veteran motorsports journalist. He spent 13 years with, where he was Digital Content Manager. Previously, he was executive editor of NASCAR Scene and managing editor of National Speed Sport News. Jensen served as the president of the National Motorsports Press Association and is the group’s former Writer of the Year.