By David Morgan, Associate Editor
It all comes down to Martinsville.
Leaving Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead, three spots remain to be claimed in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 among the seven drivers still eligible for the title.
Only Joey Logano has punched his ticket to the season finale at Phoenix, with the remaining title contenders will have varying plans of attack heading into the final elimination race of the Playoffs.
Here’s how they all stack up with one race to go.
Ross Chastain – No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet (+19 points over cut-off)
Chastain is in the best position of the drivers remaining as he carries a 19-point advantage into Martinsville. If he and his Trackhouse Racing team are able to keep up the performance that they have shown thus far, they should be able to race their way into a chance to run for the championship.
Thus far in the Round of 8, Chastain has been strong, finishing second at Las Vegas last week and once again Sunday at Homestead.
“I’ve never been here, and for AdventHealth, Worldwide Express, Jockey, Moose Fraternity and Kubota, we’ve never been here,” Chastain said. “For Trackhouse, we’re learning all this together; we’re experiencing this together.
“We’ve got a lot of knowledge in our shop and I’ll lean on a lot of teammates, both in the GM camp and inside our shop of how to approach it. But I’m a racer. We’re just going to race. Go practice as well as we can; we’ll go qualify as best we can. And I’m late all the time, so a grandfather clock might do me a little good for the rest of my life.”
Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (+11)
The points buffer that Chase Elliott has carried throughout the Playoffs as the regular season champion has kept him safe thus far, but a stretch of bad races in the Round of 8 leaves him just 11 points to the good heading to Martinsville.
A 21st place finish at Las Vegas was followed up by a 14th place result Sunday at Homestead, which came as a result of getting buried down the leaderboard when he was caught on pit road late in the race when the caution came out.
“We were playing defense all day, but we were doing a pretty good job of it and staying inside the top-five there, so that was great. But that’s what happens when you’re playing defense and you have something like that happen to you.. you just get stuck. The other guys that got buried; they drove right back to the front. That’s just the difference.”
Last time at Martinsville, Elliott started on pole and finished 10th. Given the tight points battle, he’ll need an even better run next weekend to move on to Phoenix and run for a second championship.
“I think if we execute next weekend, we’ll be fine.”
William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (+5)
Byron started Sunday’s race from the pole, but when the checkered flag was on the line, the handling wasn’t there for the No. 24 team and they could only manage a 12th place finish, dropping him to within five points of the cut-off line.
Though he’s in a precarious points position, Byron won last time out at Martinsville, which is good news for him and his team if the Next Gen car races the same as it did in the spring.
“We just had one bad run,” Byron said. “We restarted second and kind of maintained in second for maybe a couple of laps, and then the car fell off and disappeared. That one run was just really weird, so we lost a lot of track position. And then we had the deal on pit road, but everybody kept focused and tried to get as many spots as we could.
“12th is how we netted out after all of that, but I’m proud of the effort of the No. 24 Liberty University Camaro ZL1 team. We have some things to work on for short runs to just get the balance right. Later in these races, it seems like that’s what it kind of comes down to more and we just struggled a little bit. Just have to work on that; but overall, really happy with the rebound and we’re in a decent spot, for sure.”
Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (-5 under cut-off)
Though it was another top-10 finish for the No. 11 team at Homestead, Sunday’s seventh-place result wasn’t enough to keep him out of the red in the points with next weekend’s elimination race looming large.
“It was just slow on the short run,” Hamlin said. “We got the position – the track position – we were able to get the lead there, and then get second, and we just couldn’t hold it. I just didn’t have a car that would go on the short run.”
While Hamlin would much rather be on the other side of the cut-off line, there is no better track for him to be heading to than Martinsville, where he has won five times previously. Though the last two trips to the track haven’t gone to plan with finishes of 24th and 28th, respectively.
“My thoughts are we have to get a little better on the short run. It’s going to be super important how important track position is at Martinsville. We have to qualify well. Yeah, just go and try to be better.”
Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford (-18)
If Ryan Blaney didn’t have bad luck, he would have no luck at all.
For the second week in a row, he started off strong, but a late race spin dropped him from the top-five to a 17th place finish, leaving him in treacherous territory heading to Martinsville.
“Downshifted like a dumb ass,” Blaney explained when asked about the spin post-race.
“We were in a decent spot running third on the green flag stop and then I just made a mistake. That is two weeks in a row I made a mistake and it cost us a good run. I couldn’t get back up through the field after that. It was an unfortunate end of the day again, due to a driver mistake again.”
While not in a must-win position, he’ll have some ground to make up on the Virginia half-mile if he is to make his first appearance in the Championship 4.
“We will go try to have a good run. I thought we had a race-winning car there last time and I just hope we have that same speed and can put ourselves in a position to win. That is what we have to do.”
Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (-33)
Last time Christopher Bell was in a must-win position at the end of the last round, he scored the walk-off win at Charlotte to advance and heading into Martinsville, it’s once again win or go home.
After falling behind in points last weekend in Las Vegas when he got caught up in the Bubba Wallace/Kyle Larson crash, Bell didn’t do himself any favors Sunday at Homestead with an 11th place finish, dropping him 33 markers back with one race to go.
“I’m disappointed with our performance today, but at least that is in our hands,” Bell said. “Last week, I was emotional about it because it was out of our hands, and we were performing well. Today, it was in our hands, and we just didn’t step up to the bat and do what we needed to do.
“That was disappointing but we will move to Martinsville – we ran well in the spring. I definitely feel better about winning there than I did at the Charlotte road course.”
Chase Briscoe – No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (-44)
Briscoe needed a good run on Sunday at Homestead to get back in the title fight, but contact with the wall on lap 160 brought his day to an end, leaving him dead last in the finishing order. Just like Bell, he is now in a must-win position at Martinsville to keep his title hopes alive.
“The driver just made a mistake,” Briscoe said. “I was really, really loose that run. We were really tight every other run. That green-flag run we tried to get really free on the other side of it and just started taking really hard. I was hanging on with everything I had.
“It felt like I was on ice. Honestly, I wasn’t even running hard. I was trying to just get to the caution. We kept getting freer. I got sideways and had the wheel all the way to the right and ended up head-on into the wall. It is really frustrating to have it be something of my own doing. I am better than to be crashing by myself. It is really unfortunate.
“It makes our job easier next week I guess. We don’t have to worry about points. We gotta go to Martinsville and win.”