Final stage shaped how the NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings look heading to Martinsville

HOMESTEAD, Fla — Chase Briscoe was already facing a must-win scenario coming into next Sunday’s Round of 8 elimination race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. He crashed on Lap 160 and went behind the wall ending his day with a last placed 36th place effort. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver entered the day -9 in points but leaves -44.

However, most of the first half of the race went pretty status quo in regards to the playoff drivers. William Byron scored 17 stage points while Denny Hamlin had just 1. Ryan Blaney also had 9 himself which closed the gap for that final playoff spot to the Championship 4.

With Christopher Bell fading from his 2nd starting spot early to scoring no stage points, it was basically down to a must-win for him on Sunday and next week too if he couldn’t reach victory lane in Homestead.

Chase Elliott had 8 stage points and Ross Chastain 3 which helped them pull further clear of Hamlin. It was now down to Hamlin, Byron and Blaney for that fourth spot entering the final 102 laps of the day.

For Byron’s case, he was second in the first stage and third in Stage 2 by deciding to pit twice in the final stage proved costly for him, Elliott, Bell and Blaney.

Byron’s car started fading prior though too in losing nearly 10 spots in 30 laps due to a bad handling No. 24 Chevrolet. So that pit stop from 13th was his hail mary. Same for Bell who also was outside the top 10 at that time too.

Byron pit on Lap 205. Joey Logano and Austin Cindric pit a lap later. Elliott and Blaney each pit on Lap 209. Blaney then spun existing pit lane and altered the rest of the race for those drivers.

Because Martin Truex Jr. and Ross Chastain had just pit and didn’t fall a lap down, they pinned the ones that did pit a lap down and forced them to take the wave around to get their laps back.

For Blaney, it was a second straight race that he spun while running in the top 5 (he was 3rd on Sunday) and each could be the reason that he’s not fighting for a championship in Phoenix too.

“Downshifted like a complete moron,” a dejected Blaney said on what happened while exiting the pits. “It’s just disappointing, mainly to myself the last two weeks, I’ve not done a good job executing at all from wrecking last week and a bonehead move like that this week. The 12 group doesn’t deserve that. I’m disappointed in myself and can’t have that. It’s pretty unacceptable. Just go try to win Martinsville. That’s all we can do. Go try to run up front and have a good day, and that’s all we can ask for, just try to stay in the game and hopefully the driver doesn’t cost us anything.”

With losing that track position prior to this stint and now that they had a chance to fix it, the dirty air hurt his cause of moving back up. Byron would finish 12th.

“We just had one bad run,” Byron said. “We restarted second and kind of maintained in second for maybe a couple of laps, and then the car fell off and disappeared. That one run was just really weird, so we lost a lot of track position.”

It was a similar occurrence for Bell who finished 11th. Bell went from -23 to -33. He and Briscoe have to win next week. Blaney is -18 as he lost 14 spots via that mistake which would have had him -4 instead.

That opened the door for Hamlin to make up ground again. Instead of 10 to go, he was +4 on Byron. He was second on the final restart but didn’t have the car to stay there. He fell to fifth then while battling to gain spots back, he slapped the Turn 4 wall and had to slow before regaining momentum on the front stretch. It cost him a few more spots dropping him to 7th in the end.

It’s why Hamlin is now 5 points behind with one race left.

“We had some good stops,” Hamlin said. “The pit crew did a great job the second half of the race. I was able to get a good restart to get the track position by taking the lead, but I just can’t get my car to go. I can’t get it to turn. We’re just too slow on the short runs. Something we’ve really got to work on for sure. Vegas, it hurt us as well. We’ll just continue to work on it, and I’ll try to work on my technique and try to do anything I can to try to get some more speed out of it.

“We weren’t fast enough to really compete with those guys even when we got the lead. We were just a sitting duck because I couldn’t go anywhere. It’s really tough to keep it up there all day, especially with the shadow into Turn 1. I had my fair share of times in the wall today. Luckily, the car stayed in one piece. I nearly crashed into (Turn) 1. That was exciting and just kept going.” (On Martinsville) “We’ve got to go get stage points. We can’t be outside the top 10 for the first two stages for sure. That’s the only thing that has really kind of hurt us. Not having a lot of playoff points, we always have to dig ourselves out of a hole every time a round starts. We just have to go there and get it done and perform well. I think we can. We have to qualify well and execute.”

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