Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – No other track on the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff schedule has produced as many champions as Sunday’s venue, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, which plays host to the Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
This race sets the Championship 4 who will compete for the season title next week at Phoenix Raceway. Regular Season Champion and nine-time race winner Kyle Larson has swept the opening two races of this Round of 8 and is the only driver with a championship opportunity already guaranteed.
A solid race by Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin – who are second and third in the standings – should be enough to secure their passage to Phoenix. Obviously, a win by any Playoff driver is an automatic ticket to title eligibility.
Elliott, the defending Martinsville Playoff race winner, lead a dominant 236 laps last year and won by a 6.577-second margin of victory. Now, the 2020 series champion heads back to the historic half-mile holding a 34-point edge on fifth place Ryan Blaney – who is in the first position outside the Championship 4 Round cutoff. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin, the winningest active driver at Martinsville with five wins, holds a 32-point advantage on Blaney.
The fourth and final transfer position will likely provide the most dramatic outcome of the day. Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch holds that position now by a mere 1-point over Blaney in fifth. Another former champion, Martin Truex Jr., is three points behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch.
Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, both former series champions, are six and 26 points behind Busch, respectively.
Truex has three previous Martinsville victories – all coming in the last four races, including this Spring when he beat Elliott by nearly 2-seconds. Keselowski is a two-time winner at the track, as is Busch. Elliott and Logano each have a trophy too. Larson and Blaney are the only two Playoff drivers hoping it’s time to earn their first Martinsville grandfather clock – the traditional gift to the victor.
Seven times, the Martinsville Playoff winner has gone on to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship – the most of any current Playoff track.
“I feel good about it,” said Truex. “We’re going to have a good starting position and good pit selection. That place has been good to us, so if we can run up front and win a couple stages and battle for the win, I think we’ll be able to get ourselves in [to the Championship 4 Round].”
“It’s a funny, quirky little place but we have a lot of confidence and it’s been good to us over the past few seasons,” Truex added. “Hopefully, we can go and get the job done.”
Although Larson is certainly the hottest driver in the series right now with four Playoff wins including the last three in a row, Martinsville has historically been a challenge for the 29-year-old Californian. The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has only three top-10 finishes in 13 starts.
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has seven top-10 finishes, including a win (2020) and runner-up showing (2021) in his last two Martinsville starts.
Hamlin, who is looking to earn his fourth Championship 4 appearance, and third in a row, has been most successful among the title eligible group. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has five wins and 16 top-five finishes in 31 starts at Martinsville. He has finished in the top-10 in 70 percent (22 times) of his starts.
Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is looking to extend his series-best five Championship 4 Round appearances. He and Kevin Harvick have each qualified for the Championship 4 Round five times. Harvick has been eliminated from further Playoff contention this season, meaning Busch could set a new high mark among active drivers earning a successful bit this week. In 32 Martinsville starts, he has the two wins and 16 top fives.
Among those needing to race their way in this weekend, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney may be winless at Martinsville, but he has finished in the top-five in five of his 11 starts at the half-mile track. He was a victim of hard-contact racing last week at Kansas Speedway despite running in the top-10 before an accident put his No. 12 Team Penske Ford out of the race.
“We are all just fighting too hard,” Blaney said, adding “I had a heck of an opportunity to score a lot of points and make next week [at Martinsville} easy. We still aren’t in a bad spot, but not as good a spot as we could be.”
It’s a similar mindset for his teammates Keselowski and Logano; both former Martinsville Speedway winners. After 34 races, the championship field will come down to this weekend’s 500-lapper at one of the most exciting and historic venues on the schedule.
“We will do all we can do and that is all we can do,” Brad Keselowski said. “Winning would obviously lock our way in but as you saw this week [at Kansas] as crazy as these races get, I am not sure that isn’t what you have to do.”
Expect sparks to fly in Xfinity Series Playoffs elimination race at Martinsville
It’s hard to imagine this season’s NASCAR Xfinity Series becoming more competitive for Saturday night’s Dead On Tools 250 at Martinsville ( Va.) Speedway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but short-track racing for a shot at the Championship 4 Round has all the makings of a highly-dramatic title set-up.
The Xfinity Series has only run at the .526-mile Martinsville track twice in the last 15 years; with Playoff contender Harrison Burton winning last year’s Playoff race and Josh Berry taking the trophy earlier this season.
The first two Playoff races in this round have been won by non-Playoff contenders – John Hunter Nemechek at Texas and Ty Gibbs at Kansas. And that’s put an interesting spin on the Playoff points heading into Martinsville.
Defending series champion, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric and 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series Regular Season Champion, Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger are tied in points atop the standings. Veteran Justin Allgaier, who races for JR Motorsports and Daniel Hemric, who is leading the Joe Gibbs Racing’s charge, hold the final two positions above the Championship 4 Round cutline going into the elimination race at Martinsville, however, Allmendinger’s Kaulig teammate Justin Haley (in fifth) is only seven points behind Hemic (and nine points behind Allgaier).
Noah Gragson, who was collected in an accident last week at Kansas, is ranked sixth, 24 points below the cutoff line. However, the 23-year-old JR Motorsports driver boasts the best average finish (2.5) in the series’ most recent two races at Martinsville. He was runner-up to his teammate Josh Berry back in April.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Brandon Jones, is a full 40 points behind his teammate Daniel Hemric in the final transfer spot to Championship 4 Round, but has four top-10 finishes in five Playoff races this season and has a pair of top-10 finishes in both of his Martinsville career starts, including a best of fifth this year.
The defending race winner and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Harrison Burton also finds himself in a must-win situation this week after also having his day at Kansas Speedway cut short in an incident. He answered his 2020 Playoff victory at Martinsville with a seventh-place effort this Spring and has led a series-best 133 laps in the two races. Burton could use some Martinsville “magic” as he has yet to post a top five in the five Playoff races this season and takes the worst average finish among Playoff drivers (18.4) into this crucial race.
“We know the situation we are in,” said Burton, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “We are coming off a race where we had speed and were in contention to win, and in racing, that’s all you can do. My team and I have the confidence heading into Saturday and I’m looking forward to putting on a good show for all the fans under the lights at Martinsville.”
Three of the four drivers atop the standings – Cindric, Allgaier and Hemric – have scored top-10s in every Martinsville start. Allmendinger has yet to finish inside the top-10 in his two starts at the track, but did lead a promising 68 laps in a 26th-place finish in 2020. And it’s worth noting, he finished runner-up twice (2012, 2016) in 21 NASCAR Cup Series races in Martinsville.
Cindric, 23, boasts the best average finish in the Playoffs this season (3.0) with a perfect run of top-10 showings in all five Playoff races, including runner-up finishes at the Charlotte ROVAL and last week at Kansas Speedway. He’s led laps in the last eight races and was a runner-up at the Bristol short track in a dramatic side-by-side dash with Allmendinger for the checkered flag to conclude the regular season.
Allgaier, 35, was runner-up to Burton in 2020, and is on a hot streak in the Playoffs with top-10 finishes in all five races. In fact the two-race winner this year has finished inside the top-10 in the last 14 races – going all the way back to July.
Hemric, who is still racing for his first national series win has come so close this season with three runner-up finishes and five third-place efforts. He’s been strong in the Playoffs with four top-10 finishes for a 5.8 average finish – just behind Cindric and Allgaier. He finished third this year in his only previous Xfinity Series start at Martinsville.
Among these eight title hopefuls, Allgaier has the most Championship 4 Round appearances at five. He was runner-up to Cindric last year in Cindric’s first championship round appearance in three seasons.
Last year’s Championship 4 finishing order was Cindric, Allgaier, Haley and Burton. Hemric qualified in 2017 (fourth place) and 2018 (third place). Neither Gragson nor Jones have ever advanced to the Championship 4 Round.
Ty Gibbs, who now has four wins in 17 starts this season – including last week at Kansas – is entered again this week for Joe Gibbs Racing.
NASCAR Trucks return to take on Martinsville and decide the Championship 4
After a three-week break in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule, the competitors return to action in the United Rentals 200 this Saturday at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) to decide which four drivers will advance to the Playoffs’ Championship 4 Round and have a shot at the title.
Five-race winner John Hunter Nemechek holds a 1-point advantage over two-race winner Ben Rhodes atop the standings, with three-time former series champ Matt Crafton and defending series champion Sheldon Creed rounding out the current top four in the Playoff points. Stewart Friesen in fifth, the first spot outside the Championship 4 Round cutoff, is only five-points behind Creed, however.
The remaining three Playoff drivers, Chandler Smith (sixth), Carson Hocevar (seventh) and Zane Smith (eighth) – are separated by only six-points – however they are 34, 37 and 40 points behind the Championship 4 Round cutoff line. They most likely will need a win to maintain championship eligibility when the title is settled next Friday night at Phoenix Raceway. That trio has combined for only two previous Martinsville starts.
Grant Enfinger is the defending race winner, claiming the trophy by .803-seconds over Rhodes last year. Current Playoff drivers Zane Smith (third place), Crafton (fifth), Friesen (sixth) and Creed (eighth) all had top-10 finishes in that race. Nemechek did not compete in the race last year, nor did Chandler Smith.
Crafton, who won at Martinsville in 2014 and 2015, is the only multi-time winner at the track among the Playoff contingent. Nemechek won in 2018. Todd Gilliland, the 2019 winner, joins Enfinger and four-time Martinsville winner Johnny Sauter as the only drivers with previous wins at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped short track.
Among the current top four driver in the Playoff standings, Rhodes and Crafton boast the best average finish at Martinsville – 10.8. Rhodes is still looking for his first win there, but has finished inside the top-five in three of his last four races, including a pair of runner-up showings (2019 and 2020). Crafton has the pair of wins plus four runner-up showings, but he’s scored only two top-10 finishes in the last five races at Martinsville.
Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota, has 14 top-10 finishes in 2021 – second only to Nemechek’s 15 top-10s. He’s had three in the five Playoff races to this point, including a ninth at the Bristol, Tenn. short track and a runner-up at Las Vegas. That’s the only time in the last 10 races, however, that Rhodes has put together back-to-back top-10 finishes.
Crafton, driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota, has upped his game in the Playoffs with four top-10 finishes in the five races, including a runner-up at Gateway and a third-place showing at Las Vegas.
There is no doubt, however, their competition for Saturday afternoon’s trophy will come from Nemechek, who leads the series in wins (five), top fives (12) and top 10s (15). He’s scored three top-five finishes in the Playoffs and two finishes of 20th or worse.
Nemechek’s a former winner at Martinsville. However, in his last five races there, three times he has finished 28th or worse and he has the worst average finish (14.3) among the eight Playoff eligible. The driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota was seventh in his last Martinsville start in 2019.
Creed, a three-race winner in 2021, started the Playoffs off with back-to-back wins (at Gateway, Ill. and Darlington, S.C.) but hasn’t had a top 10 since. He picked up his first top-10 finish at Martinsville last Fall leading 65 laps and finishing eighth. His average finish there is 13.8.
Of the four drivers still eligible and hoping to race their way into the Championship 4 Round, the veteran Stewart Friesen has the most Martinsville starts (seven). He’s finished among the top-10 in the last three races, but his best career showing is fifth (2019). He is another that has been especially fast during this Playoff portion of the season, with four top-10 finishes in five Playoff races including a best of third at Darlington. However, he has led only one lap (at Las Vegas) in his No. 52 Halmar Friesen Toyota during the Playoffs and only 15 laps in the last eight races. Creed has only a five-point edge on Friesen entering this race.
Among the young drivers, Kyle Busch Motorsports driver Chandler Smith, 19, will be making his series debut at Martinsville. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in the five Playoff races including his first career victory at Bristol, Tenn. three races ago.
Hocevar, 18, driver of the No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet, finished 13th in his only Martinsville start last year and led five laps. He has a pair of top-10 showings in the Playoffs, but has finished 22nd (Las Vegas) and 25th (Talladega, Ala.) in the two races coming to Martinsville.
Zane Smith, 22, had an impressive third-place finish and led 20 laps last year in his Martinsville debut. As with Hocevar, he comes into this cutoff race hoping to rebound from a pair of rough recent finishes. He was 29th at Las Vegas and 33rd at Talladega. He has two top-10 Playoff efforts and three 29th or worse.