MARTINSVILLE, VA — With HMS gaining, someone had to fall. That someone was Team Penske. For just the third time in this playoff format era that was adopted in 2014, they won’t have a driver fighting for a championship in the season finale. It also shuts Ford out of the Championship 4 for the first time ever too.
What’s baffling is, Team Penske has been great on 750 tracks this season and called them their bread-and-butter. While all three drivers entered Martinsville below the cutline, Martinsville was historically a strong track for them. Ryan Blaney swept both stages this past spring and had a pair of runner-ups here a year ago. Brad Keselowski had nine top fives in his last 11 starts on the Virginia paperclip while Joey Logano won this race just a few years ago. They had a realistic chance of getting someone by to Phoenix next week with a shot at a championship.
They even showed up with the same setups that worked in the spring race but instead left with no drivers advancing to the Championship 4 as a result.
Logano, Keselowski and Blaney had nothing for the field all day. Blaney, was in the worst shape as he was 12th in Stage 1 and 13th in Stage 2 while battling a badly handling race car. He swept both stages back in April and had the same No. 12 Ford back here in October with no changes. He’d finish 11th and get bumped out of the playoffs for the third time in the last five years in the Round of 8. That’s a disappointing end to his championship hopes after he entered the postseason with three straight top two finishes and five top fives in the final six races of the regular season.
Logano also just didn’t have any speed. He led only nine laps but that’s just because he stayed out of pit lane during one sequence when everyone else pit. It didn’t pay off as his No. 22 Ford would come home 10th in the end.
“From the get-go, we were struggling to get it to turn,” Logano said. “We raised the track bar, made it loose everywhere except where I wanted it to turn. Put that back, tried something else. Got closer, but all we’re doing is compromising at that point. At about lap 15 on we were mediocre, but before that…
“Anyway, we were good enough, we didn’t get in. Wasn’t close enough. Didn’t fire off fast enough. Now we’ll go to Phoenix and try to finish as high as we can with this team. We fought hard this season. We just weren’t fast enough. Weren’t fast enough throughout the Playoffs, and today was kind of another example of that. We’ll fire away next week.
“Might not be able to win the championship, but I think overall what we’ve been able to do as far as getting our balance closer, honestly catching our teammates on the 550s was probably one of the biggest challenges for us, to get at least in the ballpark with them. The 750s has been our bread and butter. Just kind of lost a little bit to the cars the last eight or nine weeks.”
Logano, has one win all season as that came on dirt in Bristol back in March. He’s also only had just four top fives over the last 20 races overall.
Keselowski was in a similar spot. Coming into the weekend, he had just four top fives in the previous 23 starts. He did finish third on Sunday for his fourth in 24 races, but he just didn’t have it all day in being fifth and eighth respectively in the two stages.
“At the start of the race we were okay,” Keselowski said. “Got really tight in the middle of the race. Car started rolling at the end. Just super free. I was so loose. Got underneath the 9, got loose. Spun him out. All I could do to hold onto the car.
“We got it better, put ourselves in a position. Just wasn’t quite strong enough there at the end. Disappointing. All in all we gave it a great run here. Wish I could have last week at Kansas back, that’s for sure. Felt like I left the eight points we were short there with some mistakes I made.
“All in all, proud of our team. Proud of the efforts that everyone put in. Disappointed for Team Penske to not get through to the final round. We gave it our best. Feel bad for Chase, that he got caught up there. At least he’s still good for next week. Frustrating day.”
Keselowski’s lack of playoff points kept him out. He has eight in 35 races run this season via a bonus point for making the playoffs, five points from his Talladega win and only two stage wins at that.
Penske put two cars in the final round last year and had a car fighting for the championship in the final race in five of the past seven years. This time, they won’t.