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Hallman: No reason to hang one’s head after classic finish at Martinsville

November 1, 2018 GMT

Memo to Joey Logano:

Joey, don’t worry about Martin Truex Jr.’s thinly veiled threat this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. After that, there’s no guarantee.

The threat, if it was veiled at all, came after Logano bumped Truex and prevailed in the breathtaking conclusion of Sunday’s 500-lapper at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway.

“He won the battle, but he didn’t win the damn war,” said an emotional Truex, seconds after he climbed from his car.

The implication was clear. Logano, by winning the race, was the first to secure a spot in NASCAR’s version of a final four. That was the battle.

But in order to win the war — the NASCAR season championship — Logano has to finish ahead of the other three championship finalists in the season’s last race Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Truex was letting it be known that he would do whatever was required, including rough driving, to deny Logano the prize.

The Martinsville finish, indeed the whole race, was one to be remembered.

Truex and Logano had battled for five laps, mostly side by side. On the final lap, Truex put his Toyota in front of Logano’s Ford, but as they turned toward the finish line, Logano drove deep into the corner and into Truex’s rear bumper.

The aggressive move sent Truex’s car skittering up the track. Logano pulled alongside as they hit the frontstretch for the last time. Truex, still swerving, struck the side of Logano’s Ford, and the two crossed the line in a wavering waltz.

Logano made it under the checkered flag first. Denny Hamlin, who had been watching the two leaders from a few yards back hoping they would eliminate each other, came charging into second place in his Toyota. Truex slid home an enraged third.

So there stood Truex, denied the guaranteed final four spot he thought he had earned when he finally passed Logano. He was steamed. After opening with his “damn war” line, he added, “I’m just not gonna let him win it. I’m gonna win it.” And later, “What goes around comes around.”

Seven drivers remain eligible for the remaining three berths. Truex is the defending champ, and despite an impressive season — four wins and 19 top-five finishes in 33 races — he could easily find himself out of the running at Homestead.

The thing is, though, he’s not out of the running yet. And that’s why Truex is not going to do anything too rash at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.

Truex needs to keep his mind clear and win at Texas if he wants a crack at this championship, and he wants it as much as anybody else. Maybe he wants it more than everybody else because the Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team for which he drives is shutting down at the end of the season, and he’ll be based elsewhere next year.

More importantly, the super-fast 1.5-mile quad-oval (the speed for the pole position is likely to be nearly 200 mph) isn’t the kind of track where seasoned drivers like Truex increase the risk of dangerous crashes by dishing out vengeance.

If Truex does win at Texas to nail down his final four spot, all bets are off for the next race at 1-mile Phoenix, where the pole speed will be in the neighborhood of 137 mph.

But if Truex doesn’t win at either Texas or Phoenix, and if he doesn’t pick up that fourth championship-eligible spot on the basis of points — well, then his main goal at Homestead might be to make sure Logano doesn’t win the championship.

Homestead is a 1.5-mile speedway but is significantly slower than Texas with the pole speed likely to be about 175 mph. And Truex wouldn’t have to initiate a crash. He could foil Logano just by making a nuisance of himself whenever Logano is nearby.

Of course, all that depends on whether Truex is still as angry as he was seconds after Logano roughed him up at Martinsville. I don’t think he will be. I think he’ll calm down.

Logano’s car owner — racing icon Roger Penske — said it best after hearing Truex’s postrace comments at Martinsville.

“He’s a racer and should know better than to say that,” Penske said of Truex. “That was as clean a shot as you can have in a race like this.”

Penske had it right, and the key phrase was “a race like this.”

The Martinsville race was phenomenal. A driver might build a lead of a second, maybe two, but invariably, another driver more careful about tire and brake wear would mount a charge to the front. Again and again, two drivers — and at times three and four drivers — would engage each other for the lead.

On a half-mile track where the battle for the preferred groove is intense and more than one car is capable of seizing that groove, there is going to be contact.

Truex knew that. And surely he knew that with a final four spot in the balance, the race was not over until the cars reached the finish. Logano, who led 309 of the 500 laps, was going to make an aggressive final attempt to win.

It was Truex’s job to fend off that move, and he couldn’t quite manage it. He gave it his best shot. So did Logano. In those few final yards of the race, Logano was the better driver.

“A race like this,” to borrow Penske’s phrase, is the kind of race NASCAR needs to galvanize its old fans and lure new fans. Logano and Truex can both be proud that they were part of it.