Martinsville on Sunday to be like it’s own Championship 4

While Kyle Larson is running away with the first two races of the semifinal round, Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) is going to wild to depths of limits we’ve likely not ever seen before as a indirect result. That’s because Chase Elliott (+34) and Denny Hamlin (+32) are likely also bound to make the Championship 4 on points even if they don’t win the Round of 8 finale at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway on Sunday afternoon.

On the flipside, Joey Logano (-26) is in a likely must-win situation as the bottom driver in the standings. Everyone in between? Well seven points separates five drivers for the final spot.

Last year, the fifth place driver in points was 25 points back. This year, it’s one.

If Logano wins, then it’s unlikely Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. or Brad Keselowski make up 31+ points on Hamlin/Elliott to get their ways back in. That’s a tall task to ask on two drivers that finished second and third respectively this past April there. In fact, Hamlin led 276 laps that day while Elliott won this very race last year and has three top two finishes in his last five Martinsville starts.

Stage points are these two drivers’ friends on Sunday. Larson, likely won’t dominate this weekend as he has one top five in his last eight starts on the Virginia paperclip. That sets up an astronomical showdown between five drivers for one spot.

In turn, it’s like of like a Championship 4 preview in the sense that it’s going to probably take one of them winning Sunday’s race. The door is open. Larson, Elliott and Hamlin just need to get by unscathed. Why push an issue and risk a late race crash when they can just score stage points and nab top 10’s to get to Phoenix?

The rest? Well watch out. I expect some drama Sunday evening.

2017 saw Chase Elliott vs. Denny Hamlin when Hamlin purposely spun Elliott while battling for the lead in the closing laps. A year later it was Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr’s turn on the final lap which saw Logano push Truex out of the way for the win. 2019 was Logano and Hamlin again, this time against each other. 2020 saw Harvick purposely push Kyle Busch aside trying to get an extra point to get his way back in. Will 2021 see another new feud?

We’ve had plenty this season already. Elliott vs. Kevin Harvick. Hamlin vs. Chase Briscoe. Kyle Larson vs. Christopher Bell. Now William Byron vs. Tyler Reddick. Does someone push another driver over the edge on Sunday and it spill over to pit lane after the race?

A championship is on the line so with end of the race drama in all 4 years of this format for this race in this position of the playoffs, I’d say the odds are high of it.

Plus, these five drivers are all good at Martinsville in general.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 11: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 11, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Busch had eight straight top fives before his stats slipped lately. Blaney, was 11th this spring but also scored a pair of runner-ups in 2020 here to go along with being fourth and fifth respectively in 2019. Truex, has won three of the last four at Martinsville and the one that he didn’t? He led 129 laps in last year. Keselowski has 10 top 10’s in his last 11 including nine of which being in the top five. Logano, has six top eight’s in his last seven.

Logano was sixth in the spring race. Busch was 10th. Blaney was 11th. Keselowski was 33rd. If these finishes repeat themselves, we’re in for a barnburner on the cutline with Busch leading Blaney by one point, Truex by three and Keselowski by six.

If their finishes from last year and prior carry over, then the winner is from this grouping of five.

Busch won this race in 2017. Logano won it in 2018. Truex won in 2019. They make up 3 of the bottom 5 in the standings.

Also though, it’s not like these guys have been winning a lot lately either. Elliott hasn’t won since July 4 (14 races ago) in Road America. Busch last won at Pocono (15 races ago). Truex did win at Richmond (6 races ago) but Keselowski (24 races) and Logano (27 races) each have one win on the season and they’re on a superspeedway (Talladega) and dirt (Bristol). Can anyone of them turn it on now?

If they can, it goes a long way. With what’s on the line, does winning this Sunday translate well over to winning next Sunday and taking home the championship? It’s basically like you’re racing for a title in each of the next two weeks with a grandfather clock coming home with you this weekend and a championship trophy next in the Arizona desert.

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. Other than last year from Chase Elliott, 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.

Just look at what Joey Logano said last year following his win in the Round of 8 opener at Texas.

“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano said of this very exact subject. “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.”

Cliff Daniels, Kyle Larson’s crew chief said the same this time around following their Texas win to kick off the Round of 8 two weeks ago. He also said a twist to the schedule this year with having practice now too, actually helps them in the sense the winner on Sunday in Martinsville as well as the wildcard driver won’t have a lot of time to turn their cars around for Phoenix.

“I think part of what helps the Phoenix focus is just the timing of the schedule,” said his crew chief Cliff Daniels. “Since it’s a Friday, Saturday, Sunday show, the truck is going to leave like Tuesday of that week, and the way these race formats go, our hauler didn’t leave until Friday morning this week, so you’re just going to have two less days that week.

“So now we are very fortunate that we have a little bit more time just to really plan out the way the next three weeks can go with emphasis on Phoenix where if you’re not locked in right away, you’re kind of giving everything you can for that week, and to not be talking out of both sides of my mouth, we have really good cars in the system already coming for Kansas, already coming for Martinsville. I looked at them with a lot of our guys last week. Both cars look great, so we’re going to finish those out like they are already in process to be, and then when our Phoenix cars get in the system, make sure that they’re top-notch and ready to go.”

Does having practice help Larson get his car dialed in though? Does it help eliminate time for others to get their cars right too by them having less time in the shop? Does it also on the flip side negate all his speed shown this year with more time track time for others to catch up?

“Well, I could kind of take it either way, really,” Larson said when asked if it’s an advantage or disadvantage if practice returns. “We had practice at the 600 and Nashville, and we won those two. I can’t remember what all races we’ve had practice at. But as far as the ovals go for practice, I think we’ve won those.

“It kind of doesn’t — like I said, it could go either way for me. I think yes, I’m probably — I like having practice to give yourself — it kind of helps your confidence out, whether it’s good or bad, leading into the race with practice. But it also gives — if your car is great or whatever, it gives other people an opportunity to make their car better.

“But our team has done a really good job this year when we have had practice of not like getting crazy with trying different things. You kind of just get a head start on the race and your adjustments, what they may be.

“Yeah, I haven’t really thought too much about the practice and qualifying or all that at Phoenix, but hopefully it’ll go good for us.”

The winner of the first race of the Round of 8 has won the championship in twice in the last five years. They’ve finished second twice and third in the other years in that span.

The winner of the second race, has finished either second or third in each of the last four years. They’re not last, but they didn’t win the title either. Larson is both of those winners so we can Sharpie him into the top three next Sunday in Phoenix then.

The winner of the third race has finished last for two of the last three years.

Elliott changed that last year.

“That’s a really good point,” Elliott told me. “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.”

Action during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 28, 2018 in Martinsville, Virginia.

With the one spot likely going to a cast of five driver vying for it, I can honestly see one of them winning on Sunday. The question is, who and can they use this to propel them to a championship run next Sunday in Phoenix too? For those five drivers, they race for a championship this week and next. Is that any sort of an advantage?

But, in saying all of this, last year and this is 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.”

Elliott did last year and he won the title.

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.

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