Do Conditions Flip To JGR/Penske‘s Favor Now?
Hendrick Motorsports is 2-for-2 in the Round of 8. Can they sweep the Round of 8? Both wins came via Kyle Larson. He became the third driver to ever win three straight playoff races last Sunday in Kansas. Can he join Jimmie Johnson (2007) to win four straight?
The first two wins this round was expected. Hendrick went 1-2-3-7 in both stages last week in Kansas and 1-2-6-11 in the end.
They combined for 229 of 267 laps led last Sunday as well.
For Larson in particular, in 12 races on 550 tracks in 2021, he has five wins, three runner-ups, nine top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas this spring to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.
He’s led 1,737 out of 3,514 possible laps (49%) in these 12 races which also accounts for 76% (1,737 out of 2,297) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 12 stages and has been in the top two in 14 of the 25 stages run on these tracks.
We knew that Hendrick Motorsports would be the ones to beat in the first two races of this round anyways because of this. But, is this the end of their reign now? Does the pendulum swing back towards Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing’s favor for the final two races?
We’re down to two races left of the 2021 season and both are on 750 tracks. Not just any 750 track too, but on short tracks.
One could say these have been HMS’ worst tracks this season with JGR and Penske being the best on them.
HMS has one car already into the Championship 4 via Larson and another the top of the wildcard standings at Chase Elliott (+34). Two drivers will make it to Phoenix on points. Elliott is in theory in great shape to give HMS half of the Final Four field.
Can they do anything with it though?
“I try not to think about it,” Larson said. “And I think the more wins you get, hopefully we’re winning the championship in Phoenix, but I feel like the more wins we’ve gotten will make that feeling if I happen to not win, make it easier to swallow I think just because it has been a great year.
“It comes down to one race there in Phoenix. It’s a different style track than we’ve been winning on. But I don’t know. Like I said I try not to think about it. We’ll see how the feeling is. Hopefully we’re celebrating after Phoenix and I don’t have to accept the fact that we didn’t win a championship.
“But either way, yes, it’s been a good season but I want to cap it off with what we all want. I just hope we can — I don’t know if. It’s like hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship now at this point.
“Not that it adds pressure but you can read into it adding pressure that I want to win the championship even more to cap off what’s been a great season.
“So that’s my goal. And I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever.”
Elliott, hasn’t won on an oval since these very same two races last year. Both of his wins this season are on road courses. Larson, was seventh in Phoenix (1 lap led) this past spring, fifth (0 laps led) in Martinsville, 20th (0 laps led) and third (8 laps led) in the two stops in Richmond, second in Dover, seventh in Loudon (0 laps led) and did win at Bristol (175 laps led).
Elliott was fifth (Phoenix), second (Martinsville), 12th and 4th (Richmond), third (Dover), 18th (Loudon) and 25th (Bristol) on the same tracks.
Denny Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix (33 laps led), third in Martinsville (276 laps led), second in both races at Richmond (207 laps led, 197 laps led), seventh at Dover, 10th in Loudon (1 lap led) and ninth in Bristol. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville this spring and in the Fall race last week. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing in Loudon too. But, Truex won at Phoenix (64 laps led) and Martinsville (20 laps led) in the spring and Richmond (80 laps led) during the playoffs. He was also fifth in Richmond (107 laps led) this spring after what should have been another top two or three result that day.
Busch was eighth and ninth in Richmond, 10th and at Martinsville, 25th in Phoenix this past spring, 27th at Dover, 37th in Loudon and 21st in Bristol.
Christopher Bell has been quietly good with being seventh and in Martinsville, fourth and third in Richmond, ninth at Phoenix and runner-up in Loudon.
JGR has put a car in the Championship 4 in all seven years. They have two cars on the good side of the cutline going to Martinsville.
For Penske, they’ve not been at their best on 550 tracks but are on the 750 package.
They looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps (143) earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth (6 laps led) in Martinsville, third (49 laps led) and fifth (0 laps led) in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win in Loudon (0 laps led) as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney in Loudon.
Keselowski, was fourth at Phoenix (19 laps led) this past spring and runner-up last year as well as having 10 top 10’s, nine of which in the top five in his last 11 Martinsville starts. Same for Ryan Blaney who was 10th in Phoenix (35 laps led), 11th in Martinsville (157 laps led), 14th (25 laps led) and 10th in Richmond (0 laps led), 12th at Dover, fifth in Loudon (64 laps led) and fourth at Bristol (45 laps led).
They put 2 drivers in the Championship 4 last year and have had at least one driver in the final round in 4 of the last 5 years now and 5 of the 7 overall.
Phoenix back in March saw Penske go 1-2-3 in Stage 1, 1-4-5 in Stage 2, 1-4-10 in the race and lead 63% (197 of 312) of the laps. JGR went 4-6 (Hamlin, KyBusch) in Stage 1, 2-3 in Stage 2 and 1-3 in the race with leading 31% (97 of 312) of the laps. Combined, that’s 294 of the 312 laps (94%) led with finishing 1-2-3-4 in the race and 1-2-3-6 in Stage 1 and 1-2-3-4-5 in Stage 2.
For Martinsville in the spring, Penske led 163 of 500 (33%) of laps, 157 of which by Blaney but 6-11-33. Blaney did sweep both stages though. JGR actually led 61% (305 of 500) of the laps between Hamlin, Truex and Christopher Bell and went 1-3-7 in the race and 2-3 in both stages behind Blaney. Hendrick may have went 2-4-5 but they had nine total laps led, all by William Byron. Again, Penske and JGR combined to lead 468 of 500 laps (94%) that day.
For Richmond 1, Alex Bowman won, but this day was dominated by JGR and Penske too. JGR led 315 of 400 laps (79%) with Penske taking 19% (74 of 400) of the laps led themselves. They placed 4 cars in the top 5 between them and went 1-2-3 in each stage. That’s 389 of 400 (97%) of laps led that day too. In Richmond 2, JGR led 326 of 400 (82%) laps that night, finished 1-2-3 and swept both stages including being 1-2-3 in the second stage. Penske didn’t lead any laps that race but for 800 laps of action this year there, JGR and Penske led 715 laps (89%) and went 1-2-3 in 3 of the 4 stages too.
In Loudon, SHR won and honestly dominated but HMS led 53 laps, Penske 117 of 293 (40%) and JGR just seven. Still, that’s 124 of 293 (42%) of laps led between Penske and JGR to go with stage sweeps by Penske with being 1-2 in Stage 1 and 1-3 in Stage 2.
Finally four Bristol on concrete, HMS got the win by Larson who led 175 laps that night and 129 more laps led by Elliott. Penske led 55 of 500 laps (11%), with JGR 70 of 500 (14%). That equates out to 125 of 500 laps (25%) in general.
It’s not a fluke I don’t think that on the two concrete tracks, HMS did their best with JGR and Penske tops at the others.
How much will HMS be a factor over the next two weeks?
Action during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 28, 2018 in Martinsville, Virginia.
Will Chaos Ensue?
Last year we saw Kevin Harvick’s 42 point advantage evaporate for another rough outing in Martinsville. Then, Chase Elliott made up 25 points via his win and clinching a spot to the final round knocking Harvick out.
See, Harvick tried to knock his way back in on the final lap but crashed trying. It was a thrilling race with a crazy ending which is why I expect nothing less this time around.
With three spots still available to the Championship 4, we know at least two of them will be rewarded on points. So, we will have points racing too which makes this the perfect situation on Sunday.
But, one driver is in on a win, two drivers hold 32+ point advantages while another -26. The other four are separated by six points making this essentially a Championship 4 race in itself.
Translation? You have four drivers racing for one spot on points but five drivers overall essentially going for one final spot. With how well that each of these five run at Martinsville, I’d sense that one of them gets the job done and wins on Sunday.
In turn, it’s bound to cause some hurt feelings in the end. I can make a case that all five will be running at or near the top five in the closing laps this weekend and in a pinch, someone is going to make a drastic move.
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 3 of the 4 years of this format for this race in this position of the playoffs, I’d say the odds are high of it.
Can Martinsville Winner Win The Championship Next Sunday Too?
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.
Seven drivers enter the .526-mile short track with championship aspirations still, but realistically only one of them is 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.
Seven times the winner of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Martinsville Speedway has gone on to win the title that same season – the most of any track on the Playoff schedule. In fact, it occurred just last year for the 2nd time in a three year span as well as three times in the last five years.
o In 2006, Jimmie Johnson won from the ninth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first of seven NASCAR Cup Series championships. It was only win during the 2006 Playoffs.
o In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won from the fourth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his second consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The Playoff victory was the first of a record setting four straight postseason wins during the 2007 Playoffs (Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix).
o In 2008, Jimmie Johnson won from the first starting position at Martinsville Speedway (Qualifying was cancelled) and went on to win his third consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three victories during the 2008 Playoffs.
o In 2011, Tony Stewart won from the fourth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his third NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was one of a record setting five Playoff victories for Stewart during the 2011 postseason.
o In 2016, Jimmie Johnson won from the third starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his record tying seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three Playoff victories during the 2016 postseason.
o In 2018, Joey Logano won from the 10th starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
o In 2020, Chase Elliott won from the eighth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Also, five times the winner of the ninth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has gone on to win the title that same season.
o In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won from the sixth starting position at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his second consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The Playoff victory was the fourth of a record setting four straight postseason wins during the 2007 Playoffs (Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix).
o In 2008, Jimmie Johnson won from the pole at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his third consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his third of three victories during the 2008 Playoffs.
o In 2009, Jimmie Johnson won from the third starting position at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his fourth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The victory was his fourth during the 2009 postseason.
o In 2014, Kevin Harvick won from the third starting position at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three Playoff victories during the 2014 postseason.
o In 2020, Chase Elliott won from the eighth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three Playoff victories during the 2020 postseason.
Sounds great for the winner Sunday, right? The thing is, in saying the stat above, the Martinsville-Phoenix two-step only moved to the final two races of the year just last season. They’re 1-for-1 in producing this feat. Prior to that, in this playoff era that began in 2004, only five times in 17 years did a playoff driver win the final two races of a season and only twice in the seven years of this new format did someone win both the penultimate race as well as the final race to take a championship.
It’s not as likely as it sounds.
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.”
All those Martinsville winners to win the title from above? Well the Martinsville race used to kickoff the Round of 8 or in some years, be in the second spot.
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.”
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?
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 in 2019 as one. Brad Keselowski was last year. So was Martin Truex Jr. 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 seven years thus far. We will have two wildcards next weekend.
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 in 2019 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.
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.
Has Martinsville Changed?
In the past, Martinsville was a one groove race track and if you were on the outside in the corners, you were toast. That led to games being played on pit road to lineup on the inside on the ensuing restarts. Also, Martinsville was a track you worried a lot of about brakes. With two long straightaways kept together by two u-turn type corners, it led to a lot of brake failures too.
Over the course of 500 laps, it was a true test of man vs. car vs. track. Then, as technology has advanced and the car has gotten safer, the parts stronger and the drivers better, Martinsville has changed its character.
The brakes were all better and could easily last 500 laps if done right. The thing is, as the brakes got hotter, the tires would bust. Now, Goodyear has even brought a better tire to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Brakes and tires aren’t as big of a worry coming to this place anymore as they would have been a decade or two ago.
Then, the car is sturdier where you can bump and bang and not have as much catastrophic damage to it.
On top of that, the cars and downforce levels have allowed drivers to race side-by-side longer around the .526-mile track. While the low groove is the preferred line, you’re still able to make passes on the outside if you have a fast car.
Finally, the choose rule has changed this all too with the sense you don’t need to play any games on pit road anymore. You can choose which lane you restart in. That’s purely dependent on your preference.
As a result, Martinsville isn’t like the Martinsville of old but still races like it in the sense. It may actually be better.
Who Advances To The Championship 4?
In order to win at Martinsville, you have to first go through Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports. Coincidentally enough, these are the only teams left in the playoffs too. JGR and Penske have put four cars in the top five of the finishing order in three of the last five Martinsville races and have won six of the last seven there too. Also, we have two spots left to make it to the final round next week and three of the seven drivers battling for them are JGR-Penske drivers.
The only other team worth watching is Hendrick Motorsports. If you throw them into this equation, you get eight of the top 10 finishers from last year’s June race belonging from Penske, JGR and HMS. They went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 this past April and took five of the top six in this race last year.
Plus, this spring we saw Martin Truex Jr. win, Chase Elliott second, Denny Hamlin third, Kyle Larson fifth and Joey Logano sixth. That’s five of the eight playoff drivers left now with only Larson knowing that he doesn’t need to win this weekend since he’s already Championship 4 bound to Phoenix.
Who joins him on Sunday at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway? If either Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski or Chase Elliott wins, then they’ll take the second spot leaving two positions open for the taking via a wildcard. If someone not named Hamlin, Busch, Truex Jr., Logano, Keselowski, Blaney or Elliott wins, then three spots on points are for the taking.
Currently, two Hendrick drivers and two Gibbs drivers are above the cutline. All three Penske’s and one more JGR driver is below. Can anyone bump their ways in?
Truex, is below the cut line and has won three of the last four Martinsville races. The one that he didn’t? This one last year where he finished 22nd. He still led 129 laps that day.
Hamlin, is 32 points above the cutline and led 276 laps this past spring but finished third. It was his fourth top five in his last six Martinsville tries. He’s been among the best on 750 short tracks this season. Truex, has been second best.
The problem is, Kyle Busch hasn’t. He’s only +1 and had eight in his last nine Martinsville tries prior to 2020. He was only 19th and ninth last season and 10th this spring.
Penske has been the second best with Logano (-26) having six top eight’s in his last seven, Keselowski (-6) 10 top 10’s in his last 11, nine of which in the top five and Blaney (-1) scoring four top fives in his last six including a pair of runner-ups last year and sweeping both stages back in the spring before running over a hose on his final stop and being penalized.
But, Elliott (+34) won this race last year and used that to propel him to the championship a week later in Phoenix. The defending Cup Series champion hasn’t won on an oval this season and needs to in order to make it to his second straight Championship 4.
So, who makes it in?
- 19 Truex Jr. – This truly has become “Martin” sville. With him also winning at Richmond in the opening round, I think he gets it done to clinch a spot into the Championship 4.
- 12 Blaney – Why not a 3rd runner-up in his last four Martinsville starts?
- 11 Hamlin – The top three cars in April finish there on Sunday.
- 22 Logano – He’s been good on 750 tracks but JGR has been better.
- 9 Elliott – He does just enough to get by to the Championship 4 on points.