Following a wild past few days in Texas to where it took four days to finally complete the penultimate race of the Round of 8, we’re down to one race left of the third round in the NASCAR playoffs. That will take place Sunday at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
Six drivers enter the .526-mile short track with championship aspirations still, but realistically half of them are going to have to win Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) in order to get themselves to the Championship 4 next weekend at the Phoenix Raceway.
The thing is though, the odds aren’t on their sides to win this weekend as well as next too. That could affect their hopes of winning the championship now.
The last two years, the winner of the third and final race of the Round of 8, failed to win the championship a week later. In fact, they finished fourth out of the four drivers vying for it at that. You have to go all the way back to the first year of this new format’s existence in 2014 before you can find the one and only time a driver won the final race of the third round and won the season finale one week later to take home the championship.
Is this a factor of putting all of your eggs in one basket for the current race and not focusing too much ahead to the final race? I mean, you have to look at this in the sole fact of why focus on Homestead in the past or Phoenix this year, early if you aren’t guaranteed to be competing for a championship there? You have to make it to the Championship 4 first. Why spend too much time making race cars and dialing in off the truck setups for the season finale if you’re not going to be racing for a championship there? Why not spend all of your waking hours focusing on how to make your race car good for the upcoming race that weekend in order to just win and guarantee your spot into the final round?
By not knowing that you’ll be a part of the final round until the final race of the round before, you’re really behind the eight ball in catching up to Joey Logano that already stamped his way in via a win in the first race of the round.
“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano said of this very exact subject after his win in the first race of this round in Kansas. “I think it means a lot, if I’m being honest. I think it does. I’ve lived this story once where you really just kind of — you’re not last minute trying to throw together a championship car for Phoenix because you’re trying to build so many other ones. It just gives the team time to really start focusing on a car that can put us in the position to win.
“If you only have so much time in the day, you got to prioritize, you’re going to prioritize to get yourself in the Championship 4 first. Now that we did that, we’re going to have 100% of our time to Phoenix.”
The winner of the first race of the Round of 8 has won the championship in two of the last four years. They’ve finished second in the other two years in that span. That means Logano will at the very worst finish second in the final standings next weekend.
The winner of the second race, has finished either second or third in each of the last three years. They’re not last, but they didn’t win the title either. The winner of the third race has finished last for two straight years in the final round.
That doesn’t bode well for Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman or Kurt Busch. They know Harvick likely has his way to Phoenix via the points. They’re all fighting for those third and fourth final spots and in order to get it, they likely have to win Sunday.
“That’s a really good point,” Elliott told me on Friday. “I certainly think that the team that wins that very first race in the Round of 8 and gets locked in, you have more time to think about what car you want to take to the final race, more time to massage on it, so I definitely think that can be a slight advantage. I think that’s a great point. I do think that can be a slight advantage in car selection and time to tweak on those really, really small fine tuning items that can add up to make a difference.
“I can see that being a help.”
The wildcards that haven’t won in the Round of 8 though, have actually fared better than the guys that have won the final race itself. Kyle Busch won the championship last year as one. Martin Truex Jr. was second in 2018 as a wildcard but won the championship in 2017 as one too. Kevin Harvick was also second in 2016 as a wildcard while Kyle Busch won the championship as one in 2015. Ryan Newman was a wildcard and finished second in 2014 too.
That’s a wildcard driver with a top two finish in all six years thus far.
That’s great for Harvick.
The reason behind that is, the wildcard drivers have shown speed throughout the entire season and didn’t necessarily need to win in the Round of 8 to get by.
Busch, won the regular season championship last year and had well enough playoff points to get himself by. In 2018, Busch and Harvick were the top two in playoff points accumulated, but both won in the Round of 8. Truex Jr. had the next best with 38 scored, 13 more than anyone else. He had four wins that season and took the wildcard spot.
Truex, had 69 playoff points in 2017 and seven wins before the Round of 8. That’s why he didn’t need to win and as the top seed got into the Championship 4 by virtue of that.
By these trends, next Sunday will be a fight between Harvick and Logano for the championship. Logano, won the spring race at Phoenix while Harvick was….second.
But, is this year also different in the sense that we’re using a similar racing package in the final two races of the season in general. Martinsville will feature the 750 horsepower low downforce package. So will Phoenix next week.
From 2014 though 2019, the drivers went through two disciplines of tracks over the final two races in Phoenix (short track) to Homestead (1.5-mile track).
How much of a role does that play in this too?
“I can see momentum playing a role,” Elliott said of winning the last race of the Round of 8 and winning again a week later for a championship. “I can see winning Martinsville being a big momentum booster for that team to propel them to doing a really good job the following week. I think it’s really about how you ride the wave if you’re that team that can win that last race of the Round of 8.
“I definitely think that it’s great that we’re ending the season on two 750 tracks. I’m a bigger fan of that in deciding our champion on the final two races. That has my vote. Not that I get one. But I’m really looking forward to seeing that too.
“Could you potentially take your Martinsville car to Phoenix? You might. That might be a good thing performance wise as well.”
It will be interesting this weekend to see if this weeks winner can win again next Sunday and take home a championship trophy as well.