Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – To borrow a short phrase from Kenny Loggins, “This is it.”
This is the last chance for seven NASCAR Cup Series drivers to qualify for the Nov. 6 Championship 4 event at Phoenix Raceway.
With the same agenda—but with markedly different strategies for getting there—Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe will take their last, best shots at title eligibility in Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Alone among the eight drivers who have survived the Playoffs to this point, Joey Logano knows he’ll race for the series championship, having won the Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The other three Championship 4 berths are still unsettled, and no drivers above the current cut line enjoy margins large enough to feel comfortable.
Second in the standings behind Logano, Chastain is 19 points clear of fifth-place Hamlin. Chastain finished fifth in the spring race there, but he’ll have to qualify better than he did for that event (27th) if he hopes to pad his advantage with stage points.
“When NASCAR decided on the schedule, it was no accident that Martinsville was going to be the race to get into the Championship 4,” Chastain said. “We’ve seen year-over-year, it produces some crazy races. I don’t expect anything different. It’s another place that I am looking for a little bit of speed at.
“It was challenging to pass in the spring, but we were a car that went from around 27th and drove to fifth, but it took me all race to get there. It’s been high on my list to be better there. We tested there, and I am still looking for more speed.”
Elliott, the 2020 series champion, holds an 11-point cushion over Hamlin. He won the pole and the first two stages of the spring race before finishing ninth. A similar performance on Sunday should be all he needs to secure a place in the Championship 4.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron occupies a more precarious position, sitting squarely on the bubble, just five points ahead of Hamlin. Byron, however, has developed a knack for racing at the tricky .526-mile short track.
He won the spring race after starting fifth, leading 212 laps and finishing second to Elliott in the first and second stages. Byron and Elliott combined to lead 397 of the 403 circuits.
A five-time winner at Martinsville, Hamlin turned in an uncharacteristically poor performance in the spring race. He started 25th and finished 28th, fighting an ill-handling No. 11 Toyota all the way. Clearly, Hamlin will have to improve dramatically to climb into the Championship 4 Round.
“It’s going to be a fight,” Hamlin acknowledged. “It’s definitely not going to be easy. I expect that passing is going to be very difficult, so track position is going to be super important. We’ve got to go in there Saturday and qualify up front and have good short-run speed in addition to the long-run speed.
“That has hurt us pretty bad the last couple of weeks (qualifying at Las Vegas and Homestead), but knowing how difficult it’s going to be to pass, I think we’ll put a little more emphasis on that and hopefully be able to get some stage points to give ourselves a chance to advance.”
Ryan Blaney enters Sunday’s race 18 points behind Byron. The series leader in stage wins with eight, Blaney conceivably could cut into that deficit with stage points, but his clearest path to the Championship 4 is automatic advancement with a victory.
To an even greater extent, the same is true for Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe, who come to Martinsville 33 and 44 points below the cut line, respectively. The prospects of either driver advancing on points are minimal at best.
Xfinity Series drivers face intense battle for final two Championship 4 spots
Two down and two to go—that’s the status of NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 berths entering Saturday’s Dead On Tools 250 at Martinsville Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
JR Motorsports drivers Josh Berry and Noah Gragson will race for the series title Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway, thanks to respective Round of 8 victories at Las Vegas and Homestead-Miami.
Saturday’s race at the .526-mile Virginia short track will determine the final two positions in the Championship 4, at least one of which will be decided on points. That’s good news for five-time winner Ty Gibbs, who holds a 30-point edge over fifth-place Justin Allgaier.
Gibbs will clinch a Championship 4 spot by scoring 31 points at Martinsville, no matter what else happens during the race.
“Martinsville is a challenging track, but one I do have experience at,” said Gibbs, who won the pole, led a race-high 197 laps and finished eighth on April 8. “We know what we need to do to advance to the final four, but winning makes it that much easier.
“(Crew chief) Chris Gayle and the 54 Monster Energy Toyota GR Supra guys have brought me good cars all year, and hopefully this week at Martinsville we’ll have another good one. It’s a tough track, but we’re ready.”
AJ Allmendinger, another five-time winner in the series this year, holds a much more tenuous position than Gibbs. The driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet is five points clear of Allgaier.
The good news is that Martinsville is one of Allmendinger’s best tracks. He finished third there in the 2022 spring race.
Austin Hill, like Allgaier, is well within striking distance of a Championship 4 spot, standing just seven points behind Allmendinger.
On the other hand, Sam Mayer and Brandon Jones (28 and 38 points below the cut line, respectively) realistically will have to win on Saturday to advance. That’s not a far-fetched proposition, at least where Jones is concerned—he won the spring race in overtime.