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NASCAR Cup Series

Can Denny Hamlin Crash Championship Party?

If anyone is likely to knock out Brad Keselowski for the final spot in next weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it might be Denny Hamlin.

Here’s the situation: On Sunday, Phoenix Raceway will play host to the Can-Am 500 Cup race, which will determine the final four drivers at Homestead. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. already know they will compete for the title, no matter what happens at Phoenix.

In the battle for the fourth and final Cup title slot, Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, leads Hamlin by 19 points right now and Ryan Blaney by 22 points. Chase Elliott (-49) and Jimmie Johnson (-51) almost certainly will need to win on Sunday to make the final.

But Hamlin is in a pretty good spot right now. He qualified his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in second place, 14 spots ahead of where Keselowski will start

In Saturday morning’s first practice at Phoenix, Hamlin was fifth fastest to 21st for Keselowski. And in the second and final practice in the afternoon, Hamlin was eighth, directly ahead of Keselowski and Blaney.

Keselowski still has the upper hand, of course, with his 19-point lead over Hamlin, but he is by no means safe, especially if Hamlin can get some early stage points on Sunday.

“I mean, we beat him (Keselowski) by 15 points last week and he only finished two spots behind us, so I mean it’s possible for sure,” Hamlin said when asked if he thought he could get to Homestead on points. “It just depends on how the first part of the race plays out, honestly.”

But with a variety of strategies likely to come into play on Sunday, Hamlin and others are scratching their heads somewhat about what will happen at Phoenix.

“Who knows how it’s going to turn out? Honestly, there’s … four of us that need to feel like we need to win to get in,” said Hamlin. “Like I say, until the first half of the race plays out, we don’t know what we need to do. I think we’ll have a better idea after those first two stages. But then I think it’s what strategy do you take for that final restart – do you stay out or do you pit? It definitely has the potential to be pretty crazy on restarts knowing that you have some agendas out there that will be a win or nothing.”

For Keselowski, the mindset is much the same. “We’ll see how that all plays out.  It’s hard to predict the race,” said Keselowski. “I think we’re right on that cut mark.  It could go either way and we’re gonna leave it all on the table come tomorrow.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Final Homestead Slot Still Up For Grabs

Five into one doesn’t go. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that much.

Yet that’s the exact situation at Phoenix Raceway this weekend, where five drivers are competing for the final slot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

By virtue of winning races earlier in this round of the playoffs Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are already locked into the title battle, as is Martin Truex Jr., who has amassed enough points to get to Homestead.

Those three drivers are set.

The final spot?

That’s up for grabs and five hungry drivers want it.

Heading into Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski is hanging on to fourth place, 19 points ahead of Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Also in the mix are Ryan Blaney (-22), Chase Elliott (-49) and Jimmie Johnson (-51).

To make the final, Elliott or his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and seven-time Cup champion Johnson absolutely have to win on Sunday at Phoenix. No question about it.

A win at Phoenix would lock Blaney or Hamlin in, although either of those two drivers could advance if they have great races on Sunday and Keselowski has a problem.

But here’s where the plot thickens: Friday at Phoenix, Blaney put the Wood Brothers Racing Ford on the pole, with Hamlin qualifying second and Elliott fourth in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Keselowski, meanwhile, qualified 16th, worst of any of the eight playoff drivers and four spots behind Johnson.

So with three of the four guys needing to win qualifying in the top four spots and the guy on the bubble — Keselowski — qualifying poorly, Sunday figures to be a wide-open affair in the Arizona desert. And the drivers all know it.

“Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole my mindset doesn’t change,” said Blaney, who this year made the playoffs for the first time. “I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal.”

“We’re knocking on the door,” said Hamlin, who has won at Phoenix before. “We’re fast. We’re doing everything we need to do to put pressure on the other guys and try to get a win. Our car is obviously fast enough, just got to tune it in (Saturday) and get this thing going for 500K (kilometers) or something like that.”

Faced with a must-win situation, Elliott might have the biggest challenge of all.

“Our task at hand is pretty simple, we have to win the race to move on next week, everybody in here knows that,” he said. “We know that and we are going to try to attack the weekend as best we can.  Hopefully, give ourselves a chance to do that Sunday afternoon and see what happens.”

As for the bubble driver, he’s curious about how the race will play out, too.

“Qualifying here hasn’t been my greatest here as of late, so we’ll just kind of do what we can for Sunday,” said Keselowski, the 2012 champion.

This much is for certain: The battle for the final Homestead slot is still very much up in the air and we won’t know until the checkered flag falls who’ll step up and grab it.

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News

8 is Enough: Where the Top Drivers Stand After Texas

We’re down to final race of Round 3 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, following Kevin Harvick’s dramatic victory in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, passed Martin Truex Jr. with 10 laps to go to win at Texas and punch his ticket to the Cup championship race Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  It was just the second victory of the season for Harvick, but it came at exactly the right time for the driver and his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team.

By virtue of his sec0nd-place finish at Texas, Truex is locked into Homestead, too, in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota. That leaves five drivers left to settle the final playoff spot next week at Phoenix Raceway.

Here’s where all eight drivers stand going into the penultimate race of the 2017 season:

  1. Kyle Busch, locked in

The 2015 Cup champion punched his ticket to Homestead last week with a win at Martinsville Speedway. Good thing, too, since on Lap 1, Busch went up the hill and into Brad Keselowski, tearing a big hole in the right-front fender of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Busch finished 19th at Texas. 

  1. Kevin Harvick, locked in

Talk about coming up big at the right time. Harvick methodically ran down Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps, setting him up for the race-winning pass. Given Truex’s superiority on 1.5-mile tracks all year, Harvick’s performance was impressive and maybe even a bit surprising.

  1. Martin Truex Jr., locked in

So, even though he didn’t win at Texas, consider this stat: In eight playoff races, Truex has three victories in the Furniture Row Racing Toyotas, two runner-up finishes and seven top fives, which means he has enough point to make the final race. But will his first playoff loss on a 1.5-mile track be cause for concern?

  1. Brad Keselowski, +19

After getting tagged by Kyle Busch on Lap 1, the 2012 champ had to pit to repair a flat tire and went a lap down at Texas. The good news is the driver and his Team Penske squad stayed calm and rebounded to finish fifth. That puts Keselowski in great shape heading into Phoenix. 

  1. Denny Hamlin, – 19

Sure, finishing third at Texas was a solid effort for Hamlin, but to advance, he’s going to need to either win at Phoenix or post a top-five and hope Keselowski has serious issues and falls out. Not impossible, but unlikely.

  1. Ryan Blaney, -22

Everything noted above about Hamlin applies to Blaney, too. Still, the second-year driver has had an impressive playoff run, his first and the first for the Wood Brothers Racing team.

  1. Chase Elliott, – 49

Starting from the 34th position because his car was unable to make it through inspection in time to qualify on Friday, Elliott valiantly worked his way through the field to finish in the top 10. But it likely was too little, too late. Anything less than a win at Phoenix and Elliott’s title hopes are over.

  1. Jimmie Johnson, -51

The seven-time Cup champion had another sub-par playoff race. In fact, he had an awful weekend, finishing 27th at a track where he’s won seven races. You can stick a fork in his playoff hopes — he’s done unless he wins at Phoenix. His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets just haven’t had enough speed all season long.

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News

Harvick Comes Up Huge In Texas

“The Close” came up huge at exactly the right time.

Kevin Harvick, a/k/a “The Closer,” ran down Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, making the race-winning pass with 10 laps to go at Texas Motor Speedway.

Harvick won his second race of the season in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

With the win, Harvick joins Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing as the two drivers who have clinched spots in the Nov. 19 Cup championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Damn, it’s good to be in Victory Lane at Texas,” who at the 1.5-mile track for the first time in 30 starts here and the 37th time in his career. “… It’s great to check that one off, baby.”

Of his race-winning pass, Harvick said, “I knew I had a really good car and I knew I had to do something different. And I started driving into Turn 1 just a whole lot deeper and saw the 42 (Kyle Larson) doing that earlier in the race. And I was just afraid I didn’t have the brakes to continue to do that all day.

“So I waited until the end and was able to get on the outside of Martin,” said Harvick. “I got him loose and I brushed across the back of him and was able to get on the outside and my car was pretty good on the outside.”

Even with the loss, Truex and his Furniture Row Racing Toyota have clinched a spot in the title race, too, thanks to his massive points lead. That leaves five drivers to decide the final playoff spot next week at Phoenix Raceway.

Truex held on for second at Texas ahead of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, and the Team Penske Ford of Brad Keselowski. Heading to Phoenix, Keselowski is in fourth place with an 19-point lead for the final playoff spot.

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NASCAR Cup Series

7 Storylines For Sunday’s Texas Tangle

The preliminaries are concluded, and the stakes are sky high at Texas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s AAA 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

The Texas tilt, always one of the wilder battles of the year, is the second of three events in Round 3 of the Cup playoffs, during which the field will be trimmed from eight championship hopefuls to four.

So far this weekend, through three rounds of practice and Friday’s qualifying session, there haven’t been a lot of huge surprises other than Kurt Busch breaking the track record with a stunning lap of 200.915 miles per hour in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

Here are seven storylines to keep an eye on during Sunday’s race:

The Blue Oval Boys

Not only did Kurt Busch win the Texas pole, he was also fastest in second practice on Saturday and his SHR teammate Kevin Harvick qualified third, five positions ahead of Ryan Blaney and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. All three of these guys have won races already this year and could win again on Sunday.

The Usual Suspects

Five of the six top-tier Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing qualified in the top seven. The only one who didn’t was JGR’s Matt Kenseth, who was unable to make a qualifying attempt because his car never passed inspection. 

Expect all six Toyotas to be fast on Sunday, with several of the drivers likely contenders for the W. Denny Hamlin qualified second in his JGR Toyota and was fastest in Saturday afternoon’s final practice.

The Front Runners

So far Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have each won three of the seven playoff races, so they go into Sunday as the favorites. Truth is, if one of them wins, it really doesn’t change the playoff picture at all. By virtue of his victory last week at Martinsville Speedway, Kyle is already locked into the championship race in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And Truex has a 67-point lead over the cutline to advance, so he’s golden. Win, lose or draw at Texas, the younger Busch and Truex will be in the title mix.

The Outsiders

There’s no guarantee that one of the eight playoff drivers wins on Sunday. In fact, three of the top six qualifiers — Kurt Busch (pole), Erik Jones (4th) and Daniel Suarez (6th) — aren’t in the playoffs. Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, two drivers already knocked out of the title hunt, have been fast, too, so don’t count the possibility of an upset victor on Sunday. And if that happens, it could really shake up the title battle.

The Final Spot

While third-place Brad Keselowski appears to relatively secure if he can put together consecutive top 10s at Texas and Phoenix, the gap between fourth-place Harvick and seventh-place Denny Hamlin is a mere 8 points. With up to 60 points available per race, there will be a huge premium put on getting stage points at Texas for Harvick, fifth-place Jimmie Johnson, sixth-place Ryan Blaney and Hamlin in seventh.

From The Back

Seven drivers never even made a qualifying attempt because respective cars never passed tech. Three of them — Chase Elliott (34th), Matt Kenseth (35th) and Joey Logano (36th) could contend for the victory. Elliott needs to win one of the next two races to advance to the championship round in Homestead, especially since he’s unlikely to get a lot of points in Stage 1 on Sunday from his starting spot.

Payback

Will Chase Elliott attempt to extract revenge on Denny Hamlin for last week’s contretemps at Martinsville Speedway? No way. Or more correctly, not yet anyway. It’s one thing to wreck someone at NASCAR’s smallest and slowest oval, like Hamlin did to Elliott last week. It’s  another thing entirely to do it at a place where the qualifying speed was more than 200 mph. Now at Phoenix next week? Stay tuned, friends.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Elliott on Denny Hamlin: ‘Don’t even ask’

“Don’t even ask.”

That was Chase Elliott’s comment Friday morning about extracting revenge on Denny Hamlin for last Sunday’s incident at Martinsville Speedway, where Elliott was leading and Hamlin wrecked him with two laps to go.

Had Elliott held on to win, he would have been locked in as one of the four drivers to battle for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Instead, Kyle Busch won the Martinsville race and clinched a final four spot, while Elliott is eighth in points and unlikely to be one of the title combatants unless he can win Sunday’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway or next weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

Sunday night, Hamlin Tweeted an apology and insisted the incident was not deliberate, but by then the damage was done.

And, yes, Elliott is still fuming.

“I am still pretty frustrated about it and you know, as long as the week has gone along it has given me a lot of time to think about how close we were to going to Homestead,” Elliott said Friday morning at TMS.  “I think if anything else that will drive you up the wall more if you think about it. Definitely not happy about it and I don’t think a whole lot has changed.”

That said, there was a limit to what Elliott would say.

“I am not going to answer your questions about whether I am going to get him back or not,” he told reporters at TMS. “Don’t even ask because you are not going to hear it from me.  Just don’t go there.  But yeah, I don’t think my mindset has changed from that standpoint.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Talks Racing After Retirement

Like a lot of his fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has dabbled in other forms of motorsports, including the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, where he finished second in 2001, racing with his father, and third in 2004.

But Friday at Texas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt said it’s unlikely he’ll do any more sports car racing after he retires from NASCAR at the end of this season.

“I don’t think I’ll be at the 24 Hours of Daytona or anything like that,” Earnhardt said at Texas. “Back when we did those things it felt easier to do those one-offs, but that series is so competitive today, you just don’t come in there as a hobby and have a little fun. It’s just too competitive. It would be like one of them trying to come over here and just flirt with NASCAR a little bit.”

And racing for an entire 24 hours is its own challenge, requiring great trust with and confidence in one’s teammates.

“As far as working to run a 24-hour race, you want to do it with people that you know,” said Earnhardt. “I drove for Corvette and that was really nerve-wracking because you have teammates that I don’t really know that well and I’m responsible for the car when I’m in it and man, I don’t want to be the guy that screws this up for everybody.”

That’s totally unlike NASCAR, where it’s one driver per car, all race long.

“It’s a completely different experience,” Earnhardt said. “So, if I were to run in the 24 hours again, it would have to be with drivers that I’m friends with and I just don’t know whether that would materialize. It’s really unlikely.”

That said, Earnhardt left the door wide open for surprising his loyal fan base at some point in the future.

“We’ve owned a Late Model team since 2000, as far as I can remember; maybe even farther back than that,” said Earnhardt. “I think that it would really be a lot of fun to slip into Hickory one night just for a regular show. Whether that will happen or not, I don’t really know. But it’s fun to think about and another whole thing to do.”

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NASCAR Cup Series Nigel Kinrade Photography

8 Crazy Things That Happened at Texas Motor Speedway

It’s said that everything is bigger in Texas, and that goes for chaos and calamity, too.

Ever since the first race in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Texas Motor Speedway has been a place where the weird, the wild and the unpredictable occurs with surprising regularity.

Maybe it’s the speeds here, maybe it’s the difficulty or the banking in the corners, but whatever the reason, some normally sane and smart drivers seem to lose their minds when the get to this track.

Here are eight crazy things that really happened at Texas Motor Speedway:

  1. First cut is the deepest

On the first lap of the very first race here in 1997, the field wadded up in Turn 1, with Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Kyle Petty and Todd Bodine among those who got their cars torn up. Later, another multi-car crash ensnared Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Mike Skinner, Ernie Irvan and others. The next year, there was another huge crash, this one on Lap 2.

  1. Two shining moments

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had early success at Texas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt won both his first Cup race at Texas as a rookie in 2000 and his first NASCAR XFINITY Series race here in 1998. Both times he was driving Chevrolets for his father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.

  1. Stuck the landing

Back when he drove for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2008, Michael McDowell had a horrible, high-speed rollover crash in practice, with his Toyota actually shedding suspension parts as he did barrel rolls. Fortunately, McDowell, one of the nicest human beings in the sport, was uninjured.

  1. Hard knocks abound

The normally mild-mannered Jimmie Johnson was understandably miffed in the second Texas race of 2009. At the time Johnson was going for his fourth consecutive Cup championship, but he got wrecked by Sam Hornish Jr. on Lap No. 3 of the event. Johnson was furious afterwards.

  1. Going postal

In 2010, Jeff Burton inexplicably drilled Jeff Gordon into the wall under caution in a move totally out of character for one of the most level-headed drivers of his generation. Gordon got out of his car, confronted Burton and a brief scuffle broke out.

  1. Anger management

Kyle Busch got parked for the weekend in 2011, after he deliberately wrecked Ron Hornaday Jr. during a caution in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race. Busch was forced to miss that weekend’s NASCAR XFINITY and Monster Energy Cup Series races as a result.

  1. Smoke signals

Texas is the only 1.5-mile NASCAR track where the qualifying record is faster than 200 miles per hour. Three years ago on Halloween, Tony Stewart set the TMS record, when he ran 200.111 mph in the second of three qualifying rounds. But Matt Kenseth had the fastest lap in the third and final round, so Stewart didn’t get the pole.

  1. The Fight Club

One of the most memorable brawls in NASCAR history occurred at Texas in 2014. In the closing laps of the playoff race, Brad Keselowski made contact with Jeff Gordon, cutting down one of Gordon’s tires and robbing him of a chance to win or at least get a top five. The two had a shouting matching on pit road and just as it looked like Keselowski was going to walk away unscathed, Kevin Harvick shoved him back into the fray and full-on brawl began. It ended with Keselowski getting the worst of it.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Martinsville Six-Pack: 6 Things We Learned on Sunday

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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Denny Hamlin Takes to Twitter to Apologize

Chase Elliott and his growing fan base are plenty ticked off at Denny Hamlin for his actions in Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, which Hamlin later apologized for on Twitter.

Elliott was leading the Martinsville race with two laps to go when Hamlin got into him heading into Turn 3 and spun the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet into the wall. Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, went on to win the race in overtime, while Elliott finished 27th and Hamlin seventh.

RELATED: Hamlin Stuffs Elliott Into Wall

In his initial post-race interview, Hamlin claimed he got hit from behind and shoved into Elliott, which clearly was not the case. Later on Sunday night Hamlin issued this apology on Twitter.

Of course, the apology is cold comfort to Elliott, who is now eighth in points and will need to win one of the next two races at Texas or Phoenix if he wants to be one of the four drivers racing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.

“I don’t know what the deal was, but it is so disappointing,” said Elliott.  “We had the best car I’ve ever had here at Martinsville.  And had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead and because of him we don’t.”