Drivers have shown how far they’re willing to go as Martinsville sets the Championship 4 field

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - APRIL 16: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Realtree/Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford, Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Unishippers Chevrolet, Chase Briscoe, driver of the #14 Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 16, 2023 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

There’s just one chance left to qualify for the Championship 4 and for six drivers to keep their title hopes alive.

Two drivers are already locked in: Kyle Larson, thanks to his win in the first race of the round at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Christopher Bell, by virtue of his win last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Of the six remaining drivers, any of them can earn the chance to compete at Phoenix by winning Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). And, with four spots available, at least one driver will be in on points.

Odds via BetMGM
+275 – Denny Hamlin
+700 – Kyle Larson
+700 – William Byron
+900 – Martin Truex Jr.
+1000 – Brad Keselowski
+1100 – Ryan Blaney
+1300 – Tyler Reddick
+1600 – Kevin Harvick
+1700 – Joey Logano
+1700 – Chase Elliott

In the best position is William Byron. He enters Martinsville with a 30-point advantage to the cutline. That means he could lock himself in by stage points, and, barring a catastrophe in the race, should have an easy ride to the next round.

Behind him, the Playoff field is in a much less comfortable place.

Ryan Blaney had a great race last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After struggling on intermediate tracks throughout the year, he ran second and challenged for the win, though ended up just short. The strong result puts him in an unfamiliar position in the Playoff standings: above the cutline by ten points. But he said that doesn’t change his approach.

“Personally, I don’t really look at it any differently,” Blaney said. “It’s nice to be in that spot – above instead of clawing your way in. You’re still going to have to fight hard. You can’t get relaxed unless you are the [No.] 20 or the [No.] 5 for this weekend.”

“You still have a job to do and you still have to work hard and whether you’re below or above you still have to have the mindset of, ‘hey, we still have to go do an amazing job because I know other teams are going to do an amazing job as well, so we have to be on that level.’ So, I don’t think I have any different emotions, mindset on being above or below. Like I said, it’s nice to be above instead of the opposite, but you still have a very tough job to do and you have to go do your job.”

Martinsville is as good a place as any for Blaney to do his job. In 15 career starts at the track, he has the best average finish of any driver at the track, though he’s yet to win there.

“We’ve run pretty good there in the past,” he acknowledged. “It’s nice to have run good at places that you’re going to in the past, but I don’t think you can fully rely on that. Things change. We have a different tire going there this weekend.

“The track changes. Cars change. So it’s important you utilize the things you’ve learned in the past that has made you good, but I don’t think you can put all your chips into that basket. You have to understand that you have to continue to evolve and learn,” Blaney concluded.

Of the four drivers below the cutline, Tyler Reddick is in the best position with a ten-point deficit to make up. Behind him is his 23XI Racing team owner Denny Hamlin, who’s tied with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. 17 points below the cutline.

Though Truex has an uphill battle in front of him, he’s excited to return to a track that he’s excelled at in the past but struggled at in recent years.

“I’m really optimistic going into this weekend because we ran third there in the spring,” he said. “Running third there in the spring, I think we learned a lot we can use going forward and, hopefully, we can find some of that old magic we had there a few years ago again.”

“Martinsville looks so easy, it’s just a small, little half-mile track, but it’s so tricky with the concrete in the corners and, every time you go there, it’s different,” Truex explained. “It doesn’t make sense because the track is the same, but it does make it different depending on the temperature and the tire and everything that’s going on with these cars.”

Though Hamlin and Truex have big gaps to make up, a strong run coupled with bad luck for the drivers who enter above the cutline could be enough to lock them in. A win would, of course, make the math much easier.

Chris Buescher, on the other hand, absolutely needs a win. He enters 43 points behind the cutline, firmly in must-win territory.

Unfortunately, Martinsville is not his best track. But despite stunning the garage with three straight oval-track victories right before the Playoffs, he has failed to even finish in the top ten so far in a round of just oval tracks. Buescher’s RFK team will need to have made big improvements if they want to get the chance to fight for a championship at Phoenix.

Though the postseason drivers have the most to play off, the full field is still racing at Martinsville. That means some drivers could score an upset win and block a Playoff driver’s hopes.

For one driver, though, a win would mean quite a lot. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final race at Martinsville in his retirement season. For him, though it’s emotional to step away from a job he’s done for over two decades, he’s still looking at the positives.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be successful at what I do,” Harvick said. “I’ve basically lived out my childhood dream to do what I wanted to do, and now it’s time to move on. It’s time to do something different after we go to Phoenix and race there for the last time, and for me, that’s exciting.”

Last year, Ross Chastain showed just how far drivers could go for a chance to compete in the Championship 4 with his wall-ride at Martinsville. Though that specific move is now illegal, expect desperation to show at Martinsville.

It’s crunch time for the Xfinity Series at Martinsville

Just one driver enters Saturday’s Dead On Tools 250 (3:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) knowing how he’ll leave. Sam Mayer won last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which automatically locks him into the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

One driver can enter pretty confidently though. John Hunter Nemechek has a 44-point advantage to the cutline, and can easily clinch just from earning enough stage points. Either way, he just needs a few points in the race to make the next round. However, the driver with the most wins in the series might prefer to try to go for another.

The rest of the field doesn’t have the same luxury to choose. Cole Custer and Austin Hill both enter above the cutline, but only barely, tied at three points to the good. Custer believes, though, that he can make it.

“I think, going into Martinsville, we just have to keep doing what we’ve done all year,” Custer said. “We’ve made our cars better and better throughout the year, and we’ve really grown as a team.”

“Going into this weekend, you have to take it one step at a time, to be honest. You can’t get ahead of yourself. Some things probably aren’t going to go your way at some point during the day. That’s how things go in this sport. Nothing is guaranteed. You have to move on and maximize the day the best you can,” he concluded.

Below the cutline and ready to pounce to eliminate Custer or Hill, though, is Justin Allgaier. He just needs to make up a very doable three points.

Further back, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith, and Sheldon Creed are firmly in must win position, with 49-, 54-, and 65-point deficits respectively. All three need a win to advance and can sacrifice any strategy to get stage points, for example.

But it might not be a Playoff driver who wins at Martinsville. In fact, Cole Custer’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Riley Herbst could be the dark-horse favorite. He won the opening round at Vegas, spoiling Playoff drivers’ hopes of locking into Phoenix early, and finished second at Homestead, making him the hottest driver in the series right now.

“Winning at Las Vegas was everything,” Herbst said. “It’s a day that I had wished for and, when it finally came, it was even better than I could’ve imagined.”

“Even though each track and each race is different, I think that win just proved that we can go out there and compete for victories. Even last weekend at Homestead, we were there at the end when it mattered. We were close, but ultimately it’s showing what this team can do. While we may not be in the playoffs, we’re not just going to fade to the back of the pack,” he concluded.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 15: Ryan Ellis, driver of the #43 Costa Oil Chevrolet, drives with sparks after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Xfinity Before You Dig. 250 at Martinsville Speedway on April 15, 2023 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Xfinity 500
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Sunday, October 29
The Time: 2 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,587,800
TV: NBC, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 263 miles (500 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 130),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 260), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 500)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Dead On Tools 250
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Saturday, October 28
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,380,935
TV: USA, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 131.5 miles (250 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 60),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 250)

Owen Johnson