In a stark departure from the cohesiveness they exhibited a week ago, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates expressed some testiness with one another during Sunday's third-round playoff opener at Martinsville Speedway.
Kyle Busch took exception with how hard teammate Denny Hamlin raced him in the closing laps of the Goody's Fast Relief 500, allowing leader Jimmie Johnson to build an insurmountable advantage. Hamlin was running second to Johnson with teammates Busch and Matt Kenseth directly behind.
In Busch's estimation Hamlin was the slowest of the three, and should've allowed himself and Kenseth to pass to better their chances to chase down Johnson. But Hamlin refused to defer and continued to hold Busch and Kenseth at bay. As he did, that allowed Team Penske's Brad Keselowski to close up and eventually pass the JGR trio.
Keselowski finished second to Johnson, with Hamlin third, Kenseth fourth and Busch fifth. Afterward Busch expressed annoyance that he couldn't use his front bumper (a common tactic on the half-mile short track) to force his way around Hamlin.
"You can't wreck each other and that's all there is to it," Busch said.
Then sarcastically, Busch added: "We worked so good together that we gave (Johnson) the win today. That's how good JGR is."
Hamlin contended that because there were so few laps remaining and what was at stake, he needed to look after his own self-interests, not those of his teammates.
"We're in a team business, but we're also in a business to win for our sponsors and ourselves," Hamlin said. "At the end, you have to do what's best for yourself.
"But I definitely didn't feel like we were holding anyone up at the end by any means. I didn't even see (Busch) at the end. But, you know, it's just part of it. We're all frustrated. We had probably the first-, second-, third-fastest cars throughout the day, then we end up three, four, five. It's frustrating for all of us."
The final stages of Sunday's race played out differently than last week's Round 2 elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway. To preserve their advancement to the next bracket, Busch, Kenseth and JGR's fourth driver, Carl Edwards, drafted exclusively together throughout the afternoon in that race.
There were elements of that same synergy at Martinsville, as the teammates frequently helped one another by conceding the preferred lane on restarts.
Hamlin, Busch, and Kenseth are among the eight drivers vying for spots in the four-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship finale, which will be determined following the Nov. 13 elimination race at Phoenix International Raceway. Busch provisionally holds the final transfer position, four points above the cutline. Hamlin and Kenseth, who led a race-high 176 laps on Sunday, are five points clear.
"We probably could have been about second, I don't know if we could have got up there and caught (Johnson) as long as we got caught up behind all that stuff," Busch said. "So it's frustrating not to be higher up."