NASCAR Barometer: Busch Wins Wild One

NASCAR Barometer: Busch Wins Wild One

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway produced a wild finish that Kyle Busch was able to exploit to become the first championship contender to book his spot in the season finale. No fewer than three drivers appeared to have Sunday's victory in the bag, but each one suffered their own trouble that moved them out of the lead. All the while Busch climbed steadily forward. The race's final restart saw Busch starting side-by-side with teammate Denny Hamlin, and as Hamlin began to pull away, a small mistake allowed Busch to dive toward the inside to take the lead. He then held off Martin Truex Jr. as he made the final circuit to the checkered flag, which removes significant pressure from the team as they now set their sights on performing at the best at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The next chance for championship contenders to find their ticket to Miami is this week at Texas Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson won there earlier this season, but he will face a field of hungry contenders as the season approaches its final three events of the year. Last week's race will leave plenty of drivers frustrated, and manifestation of that stress could produce an exceptional on-track battle at the Lone Star State's high-speed oval.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch came to the forefront at the onset of the final stage at Martinsville, and took advantage of other championship contenders' tempers boiling over to squeeze through for the victory that put him into the final battle for

Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway produced a wild finish that Kyle Busch was able to exploit to become the first championship contender to book his spot in the season finale. No fewer than three drivers appeared to have Sunday's victory in the bag, but each one suffered their own trouble that moved them out of the lead. All the while Busch climbed steadily forward. The race's final restart saw Busch starting side-by-side with teammate Denny Hamlin, and as Hamlin began to pull away, a small mistake allowed Busch to dive toward the inside to take the lead. He then held off Martin Truex Jr. as he made the final circuit to the checkered flag, which removes significant pressure from the team as they now set their sights on performing at the best at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The next chance for championship contenders to find their ticket to Miami is this week at Texas Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson won there earlier this season, but he will face a field of hungry contenders as the season approaches its final three events of the year. Last week's race will leave plenty of drivers frustrated, and manifestation of that stress could produce an exceptional on-track battle at the Lone Star State's high-speed oval.

UPGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch came to the forefront at the onset of the final stage at Martinsville, and took advantage of other championship contenders' tempers boiling over to squeeze through for the victory that put him into the final battle for the championship. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a fast car throughout the afternoon, but truly found his stride at the front once the second stage got underway. It gives him another grandfather clock to put in his trophy room and greatly reduces pressure for the next two races as Miami looms. Busch has two Texas wins on his resume but didn't have the best weekend there earlier this season. He started 34th after failing to make it through inspection and finished the race 15th.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski continued his quest of adding bonus and stage points to his account by sweeping the first two stage victories at Martinsville on Sunday. He was in position to win Sunday but was moved out of the way by Chase Elliott as the pair fought on the final restart of the race. He recovered to finish fourth. The Penske Racing driver is finding ways to compete with the championship favorites, and he could be a factor as this final elimination stage wears on. Keselowski has never won at Texas, but he finished sixth in the spring. He will continue his aim to gain stage points if he is not in position to win, which could give him the edge to advance to Miami.

Jimmie Johnson – The Martinsville weekend didn't start brightly for Johnson. The team had car trouble in qualifying and made changes, which forced them to start the race from the rear of the field. He took advantage of some of the race's early cautions to get off sequence and move up the running order, though. That move enabled him to finish the first stage in fourth position, and he ultimately worked his way into the top 10 for the final restart of the race in what has become his trademark comeback. Johnson has won seven of his 28 Texas starts, which includes his victory there from earlier this season. Johnson has proven that he isn't going to exit this championship fight without a battle.

Chase Elliott – Sunday at Martinsville was a strong performance from Elliott. He ran strongly at the track in his past visits, and Sunday's effort reflected more of the same from the Hendrick Racing driver. He battled hard in the closing laps to take the lead only to be pushed out of the race by Hamlin. While the result may have been terribly frustrating, it showed that Elliott is capable of fighting fender-to-fender with the veterans of the series. He's proving that he's close to capturing that elusive win. In his three Cup series starts at the track he has yet to finish outside of the top 10, and he even finished ninth there earlier this season despite starting 33rd.

DOWNGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin had one foot in Victory Lane at Martinsville on Sunday after shoving Elliott out of the way, but he tasted a bit of that medicine from teammate Kyle Busch on the resulting restart. The bump from Busch was much less controversial than the one Hamlin applied to Elliott, but it was still enough to move Hamlin out of the lead. Hamlin ultimately dropped even further down the finishing order while grasping to hang on to a top finish off of the final turn. He was scored 11th after the melee that ensued with that incident when it could have been an easier ride into the final championship decider in Miami. Fantasy owners will need to monitor how Hamlin responds to last week's controversy before determining his upside potential at Texas.

Kyle Larson – After being one of the championship favorites earlier in the year, Larson has taken some significant steps backward. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was eliminated from championship contention earlier and crashed out of Sunday's race at Martinsville. He should have been a driver fantasy owners had confidence in ahead of the race, but it didn't turn out well for those who put their trust in him last week. It has still been an extremely strong season for the No. 42 team, but they will need to find improvement to finish even higher in the standings next year. He was the runner up at Texas earlier this season, and a top finish there could give them drive into the winter to make those necessary adjustments.

A.J. Allmendinger – The current season hasn't been full of great moments for Allmendinger. Martinsville is one of the tracks he has the potential to outperform, but even that didn't help his season-long troubles. Early contact and a spin put him on pit road to make repairs, which would have made the day extremely long by itself, and he never successfully overcame the five-minute repair clock that NASCAR imposes. His team wasn't able to make repairs and return to speed fast enough for him to continue in the race, and he was out before the first stage was complete. This week could be another tough one for Allmendinger, too. He has just two top-10 finishes from 17 Texas starts, and top-20 finishes have been his ceiling at the track recently.

Erik Jones – While much of the season has been impressive from Jones, he stumbled at Martinsville. The rookie driver worked hard throughout the distance, but spun in the final segment of the race. That pushed him down the running order and out of contention to add another top-10 to his cause. He spent the rest of the afternoon battling for a mediocre top-20 finish, which is nothing like he is capable of delivering. Jones has two Cup series starts at Texas but hasn't finished higher than 12th. He started sixth in that effort from 2015 but didn't get a handle on the course earlier this season. Jones has talent and potential, but last week did not work in his favor.

Joey Logano – Life has been hard for Logano since his encumbered win a Richmond Raceway. That blow halted his progress forward in the championship, and hung like a cloud over the team through most of the season. He got off on the right foot at Martinsville, however. He qualified on pole and jumped out to the early lead, but late contact while he was racing for the win put him in another poor finishing position. This team is searching for another win, but circumstances continue to conspire against the organization. Logano has one Texas victory, which he earned in 2014. He has also finished in the top three each of the last three visits to the circuit.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer didn't make any headlines Sunday at Martinsville, but he held station in a mistake-free race that gave him a top finish on a night when many of the top contenders tripped over one another. It hasn't been the greatest season for Bowyer, but it has been a significant step forward from his prior team. Expectations might have been that Bowyer would win in his first season behind the wheel of the No. 14 machine, but it doesn't appear likely that will happen. Still, progress is being made after some time in the wilderness. The team hasn't shown the speed to compete on many of NASCAR's tracks, but Bowyer had the opportunity to punch above the team's weight on Sunday and he took it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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