Final four set for Cup Series championship

Final four set for Cup Series championship

Alex Bowman won at Martinsville after he sent Denny Hamlin spinning with less than five laps to go.

Hamlin was leading the race when Bowman slid up the track trying to make a race-winning pass. Hamlin went sliding into the wall and caused a late-race caution. Bowman then held off Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski on a two-lap restart for his first win at Martinsville.

Since Busch and Keselowski didn’t win the race, they’re out of the playoffs along with Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. Hamlin had enough points to advance to the championship race and he’ll race Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. for the 2021 Cup Series championship at Phoenix on Nov. 7.

Elliott advanced to the title race after the second stage thanks to his points position. Larson was in thanks to winning the first two races of the third round. Truex needed a late-race comeback after damage with less than 50 laps to go. He squeaked into the championship race ahead of Busch and Keselowski.

After the race, Hamlin called Bowman a “hack” who is “terrible” and gets outraced by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates every week. Bowman said after the race that his car had gotten loose on braking into the corner and that he didn’t mean to spin Hamlin. 

Before calling Bowman a hack, Hamlin let Bowman know that he was unhappy.

The race was relatively straightforward until Austin Dillon hit the wall with 67 laps to go. Chaos was unleashed after that with four more cautions over the rest of the 501-lap race.

Hamlin looked to have the race in hand over the final 25 laps as he was keeping Bowman at bay. But Bowman was able to get alongside of Hamlin for multiple laps before the contact occurred.

He then pulled off a masterful restart to keep Keselowski or Busch from winning the race. Both Keselowski and Busch needed to win the race to advance to the title race. Busch restarted alongside Bowman and didn’t get a chance to keep him pinned to the inside or use the bumper. And Keselowski never had a chance to bump Bowman out of the way entering Turn 1 right after the final restart.

WIth Busch and Keselowski in their points positions, it was easy to see how Bowman was a sitting duck on the final restart. They were going to be as aggressive as possible to get to the championship race. Instead, Bowman — who was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round — kept them at bay to win his fourth race of the season. 

2 Hendrick, 2 Gibbs for the title

The contenders for the championship are a fitting four. With Bowman’s win on Sunday, Hendrick drivers have won 16 of 35 races so far this season while drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing have nine wins this season. Drivers from outside the two teams have won just 10 races in 2021. 

Larson leads the Cup Series with nine wins. He’s been the most dominant driver since Jeff Gordon 20 years ago and is the obvious favorite for the Cup Series title. Elliott is the defending Cup Series champion and won at Phoenix a year ago to get his first Cup title. 

Hamlin has been Larson’s biggest challenger — at least when it comes to running up front. Hamlin has just one fewer top-10 finish than Larson and entered Sunday’s race with a better average finish. Truex is second to Larson with four wins in 2021, though he has just 14 other top-10 finishes. 

A lot has happened since the first race of the season at Phoenix, but all four title-contending drivers finished in the top seven. Truex won the race while Hamlin was third, Elliott was fifth and Larson was seventh. 

Race results

1. Alex Bowman

2. Kyle Busch

3. Brad Keselowski

4. Martin Truex Jr.

5. William Byron

6. Aric Almirola

7. Kurt Busch

8. Erik Jones

9. Chris Buescher

10. Joey Logano

11. Ryan Blaney

12. Kevin Harvick

13. Austin Dillon

14. Kyle Larson

15. Matt DiBenedetto

16. Chase Elliott

17. Christopher Bell

18. Tyler Reddick

19. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

20. Anthony Alfredo

21. Corey LaJoie

22. Chase Briscoe

23. Cole Custer

24. Denny Hamlin

25. Bubba Wallace

26. Michael McDowell

27. Ross Chastain

28. Daniel Suarez

29. BJ McLeod

30. Cody Ware

31. Justin Haley

32. Ryan Newman

33. Garrett Smithley

34. Quin Houff

35. Josh Bilicki

36. Ryan Preece

37. Timmy Hill

38. Joey Gase