By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Seven drivers enter Martinsville Speedway with a shot at moving on to next week’s NASCAR Cup Series championship race, but only three will leave Sunday’s Xfinity 500 with those title hopes still intact.
The Round of 8 in the Cup Series Playoffs all comes down to the half-mile bullring in southern Virginia, where bent sheet metal and hurt feelings are all but inevitable. A mainstay on the schedule since 1949, the historic track, which is also the smallest on the circuit, will test both man and machine over 500 grueling laps.
The track has basically one groove, meaning the only way to pass will be the move we all know and love – the bump and run. To be successful at Martinsville, drivers have to have a special skill set that will let them be able to navigate the treacherous track and avoid trouble that is almost certain to happen around them at some point during the race.
Of the eight Playoff drivers, only Kyle Larson comes into Martinsville without a worry, having won the first two races of this round to lock himself into the race next weekend in Phoenix.
Among the remaining drivers still vying for the championship, defending Cup champion Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin are in the best position at Martinsville, sitting 34 and 32 points above the cut-off line. Barring disaster, the double-digit points buffer that each of them hold should be enough to see them through.
The same cannot be said for the drivers situated from fourth to eighth in points, with a fierce battle ahead to see which of those drivers will be moving on and which ones will be on the outside looking in when the checkered flag falls.
Single digits separate the drivers currently fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh in points, with Kyle Busch currently holding the fourth and final transfer spot with just a one-point advantage over Ryan Blaney. Martin Truex Jr. is three points back, with Brad Keselowski six points behind.
Joey Logano sits eighth in points, with a 26-point deficit putting him in a must-win position for Sunday’s race.
By the Numbers
What: Xfinity 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 35 of 36
Where: Martinsville Speedway – Martinsville, Virginia (Opened: 1947)
When: October 31, 2021
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 2:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 0.526-mile oval
Banking: Turns banked 12 degrees, flat straightaways
Race Length: 500 laps, 263 miles
Stage Lengths: First two stages: 130 laps, Final stage: 240 laps
Pit Road Speed: 30 mph
Pace Car Speed: 35 mph
April 2021 Race Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota (Started seventh, 20 laps led)
November 2020 Race Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started eighth, 236 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (18.898 seconds, 100.201 mph – March 28, 2014)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Martinsville:
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 106.1
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 102.4
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 100.0
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 98.8
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 97.2
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 96.9
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 93.4
- Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 85.8
- Ryan Newman – No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford – 83.3
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 81.6
NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings:
- Kyle Larson (Advanced to Championship 4 with Texas, Kansas wins)
- Chase Elliott (+34)
- Denny Hamlin (+32)
- Kyle Busch (+1)
- Ryan Blaney (-1)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (-3)
- Brad Keselowski (-6)
- Joey Logano (-26)
From the Driver’s Seat
“I love going to Martinsville,” said Daniel Suarez. “It’s just a different atmosphere and they have things so unique to them – the trophy, the style of track, etc. It’s one of those tracks that you have to go slow in order to make yourself fast. You have to back up the corner and go slow going into it, then you really get your speed coming off of it to pass people. There’s a lot of beating and banging between all of us on the track and it’s something really fun to watch for the fans.”
Last Time at Martinsville
Pushed from its scheduled Saturday night slot to Sunday afternoon due to rain, this spring’s running of the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 would come down to a battle between Joe Gibbs Racing teammates for the win.
Denny Hamlin kept his No. 11 Toyota up front for more than half of the race, leading for a race-high 273 laps, but in the end didn’t have enough to hold off teammate Martin Truex, Jr., who went on to win for the third time in the last four races at his namesake track.
“This is unbelievable,” said Truex. “This place has become a playground for us I guess. We didn’t have the best car all day, but we just kept working on it and never quit on it. Proud of James (Small, crew chief) and all the guys. This Bass Pro/Tracker Toyota Camry came on at the end and that’s when it counts. There’s something about when the lights come on here, we’re really good so that was cool.
“There was a time when I thought there was no chance in hell I’d have a clock so to have three and to have a shot at even more than that has been amazing. Thank you all.”
Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott crossed the line in second place, while Hamlin was able to hang on for a podium finish.
Hamlin, a five-time Martinsville winner, noted that it all came down to his car being fast on the short runs, but not so much on the long runs, which allowed Truex the opportunity to pass him for the lead with 16 laps to go and stay out front all the way to the checkered flag.
“That’s just the cards we were dealt,” Hamlin said. “We had a really good short run car. We just didn’t have a good long run car. We saved a set of tires – we had the tire advantage – but we couldn’t get the car to turn on the long run. That was the bugaboo, you could say, but overall, the FedEx Camry team performed well. We had a really fast car for 20 laps or so, and then it would just kind of go away. Fortunate for us, we had a great day and had ourselves a shot at it, but just wasn’t quite good enough.
“The last run was kind of a worst-case scenario because we had new tires and no cycles, where during the middle of the race we kept cycling our tires because of the cautions. It was the worst-case scenario, really exploited kind of our setup and our weakness there with 15 or so to go.”