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Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin opened the NASCAR Chase for the Championship Eliminator Round of 8 with sixth and eighth-place finishes respectively in today’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch raced solidly inside the top ten all day before finishing 11th.
Kenseth qualified the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota in the third position and was able to race his way into second through the early going. Kenseth was running fifth at lap 100 and he remained in the top five and was back up to second for a restart just past the 200-lap mark. He was running sixth following a lap 226 restart when he got loose and the Dollar General Camry jumped to the outside making contact with the No. 4 car which sent both vehicles spinning into the outside wall. The 20 team worked hard on pit road to keep Kenseth on the lead lap while making repairs to the body of the car. He would restart 28th on lap 240 and was up to 25th at the halfway mark. He would stay out under the next caution to gain track position and restarted fourth on lap 260. Restarting on the outside lane with old tires proved difficult and he would drop back outside the top 10 before the next caution. A caution on lap 277 would allow Kenseth to come down pit road for fresh tires and he restarted 29th on lap 283. Several cautions shuffled the field with various pit strategies at play and he would run 16th with just under 200 laps to go. Kenseth would climb his way back through the field on the next run and was running 11th by lap 345. After losing several spots on a long green flag run, he would line up 19th for a restart following a round of pit stops under caution on lap 390. He would line up 12th for a restart with 68 laps to go after another round of pit stops under caution. Kenseth patiently attempted to work his way back toward the front. A late caution would bring him down pit road one final time for a two-tire change and fortunately for the 20 team he would have the opportunity to restart on the bottom lane which had proven advantageous all afternoon. Kenseth was able to gain three spots from ninth and earn a solid sixth-place finish in the opening round of the three-race Eliminator Round.
Hamlin started his No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota from the fifth position and was able to race his way into third through the early portion of the race. He would remain inside the top ten over the first 100 laps and drove his way up to seventh by lap 120. Hamlin would work his way back inside the top five for a restart just past the 200-lap mark and was running second at the halfway mark. A great pit stop by the FedEx team on lap 257 would allow the 11 to come off pit road first, but he would line up sixth for the restart when several other teams elected not to pit. He would drive up to second before the next caution on lap 277. Shortly after the restart he would drive by the 22 to take his first lead of the day on lap 290. He would give up the lead to pit under caution and the FedEx crew got him off pit road first but many others remained out leaving him to restart 17th. He would make an impressive run through the field to race third by lap 330, regained second on lap 350 and earned his way back to the front on lap 360. On the day he would lead twice for a total of 68 laps. A caution would bring the field back down pit road and Hamlin would remain the leader following a four-tire stop on lap 390. He would hold the lead over the next green flag run and came down pit road for four tires with 80 laps to go. Hamlin would line up fourth for the restart with 72 laps remaining. A late-race caution would bring Hamlin down pit road one final time as the team made the decision for a two-tire stop. Several teams elected not to pit which jumbled the lineup once more. Unfortunately Hamlin had to line up on the outside lane, which was slow to restart all day long and then was trapped by those in front of him that were on the older tires. He would go on to finish eighth.
Busch started the No. 18 M&Ms Halloween Toyota from the eighth position and was able to race his way into the top five through the early portion of the race. He would run third at lap 125. The M&Ms Camry would remain in the top ten and restarted ninth on lap 215. A caution would follow shortly after that restart and Busch would be the first to pit from the 10th position. He would restart 17th on lap 226 and was running 13th at the midpoint of the race. He would stay out on the track following a lap 277 pit stop to restart fifth. More cautions shuffled the field with several different strategies at play and Busch was back outside the top 15 at lap 300. He would drive his way back into the top ten and was running seventh by lap 340. He would drop back to run 10th by lap 360. Busch would bring the M&Ms Camry back down pit road on lap 390 while under caution and lined up 15th for the restart. He would come back down pit road with 80 to go and lined up 10th for the restart. A late caution would shuffle the field one last time with several teams electing to remain out on track while others, including Busch and his teammates came down for tires. Busch managed to pilot his M&Ms Halloween Camry to an 11th-place finish over the final five-lap shootout to the checkered flag.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the race followed by Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, and Joey Logano rounded out the top five. There were 15 cautions for a total of 105 laps and 24 lead changes among 11 different drivers.
Today’s race was the first of three races in the Eliminator Round of 8 under the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship format. Earnhardt did not qualify for the Eliminator Round and his victory today means there can only be a maximum of two automatic qualifiers for the Championship Round of four which will compete at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale. Kenseth is currently fourth in those standings just five points behind the leader Jeff Gordon, while Hamlin is just outside of the cut-off line in fifth, but only seven points out of the lead.
Round two of the Eliminator Round will be next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Live coverage from Texas will begin on ESPN Sunday, November 2 at 2 PM ET (race begins at 3 PM ET). The race will also be carried on Sirius NASCAR radio channel 90.
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