5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN)

Short Track Improvement?

The spring Martinsville race was abysmal. Very little lead changes (5) and no real action. The shifting, the bigger tires, little tire fall off, the cooler temperatures all played a role they said. However, the other short tracks on the schedule suggest we could be in for a long day.

Bristol featured the lowest amount of lead changes (12) since 2009. Richmond was ho-hum. Very little passing at either. With this race and Phoenix being the final two races of the season, did NASCAR do enough between visits to improve the show?

“It was pretty tough. We pitted in front of the 17, so just kind of the way the year has gone. Just went from having a chance to lead the parade to being a part of the parade,” Kevin Harvick said at Bristol. “Just difficult to pass. Parted it way too fast through the corners. Can’t race.”

With this new car, one part to it is an increase in tire size. That bigger tires lead to more grip in the turns and as a result, you get higher cornering speeds.

Denny Hamlin said it felt like they were going quicker in the corners than they were on the straights. With minimal tire fall off outside of the ones that blew, it just doesn’t create for very good racing.

For a short track to work, you need slower corning speeds and more tire fall off. When you get neither, it makes for a tough night.

“Had good track position from our qualifying effort but passing was just impossible,” Hamlin said. “It was just a type of day where you needed to stay up front at all costs and we just couldn’t quite do it and ended up having a blown tire that set us back and we were trying to play catch up from that point. (The Next Gen car) was tough. I would like to see the racing improve overall. Some lap time variation a little bit. We’re just running around there and it’s like we’re running faster in the corners than we are on the straightaways. Just extremely hard to pass. Just seems like mechanical stuff with this Next Gen and wrecks are the X-factor in moving on so you just have to be really consistent.”

They tested here a couple of times but didn’t really work on improvements for this race in particular so I’m curious to see though that after the data from all season, will this race be better?

They better hope so. If not, then the cut races this postseason have been wildly unentertaining.

Bristol clearly wasn’t what we expected, the ROVAL was unchaotic for the first 103 of 109 scheduled laps and now if Martinsville is a snoozer, then that would have everyone worried about how the championship race will look next Sunday.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Dent Wizard Ford, lead the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Weather Conditions

Part of the reason for a ho-hum spring race was due to the race being run at night and the night time temps being in the 40s. This race starts under the sunny skies but more than likely will finish under the lights. How much does this play a role in the race? What happens if it rains and pushes it to under the lights anyhow?

We’ve seen as the race goes on the more grip gets added. Plus, with races under the lights, the natural night conditions under the cooler skies add more natural downforce and grip as well. So with a race starting in the sun and ending at night, can the teams make the right amount of adjustments to their cars and tire pressures to keep up?

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 27: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 ONX Homes/iFly Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 27, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Ross Chastain

It’s been a miracle season for the Trackhouse Racing freshman. Chastain was grateful Trackhouse wanted to take a chance on him and he’s repaid them in a big way. The Florida native enters the Round of 8 elimination race as the top in the standings among non race winners.

The question is, he can stay above the cutline?

Chastain is +19 and one race away from racing for the championship.

“It’s just a life goal, a career accomplishment,” Chastain said. “Just to make it to the Cup Series, be here competing with my heroes. I feel like that no matter what, this season is going to be a success, but in the moments where I hit the wall at the Roval and I realized this could all be gone and we could not transfer, it hurts, and I don’t want that. I’m a racer, and I want the next thing.

“I feel confident in our group and what we’ll take to Martinsville. We ran fifth there in the spring. We just continue to arrive on the scene of the Cup Series, and I wouldn’t want to be doing it with anybody else.”

The thing is, with how desperate that some drivers may be, does Chastain risk getting “Chastained.”

He’s become a verb this season. Chastain has had run ins with several drivers including 2 of the direct 3 below him. If Denny Hamlin needs a win and has to get payback, does Chastain get it now?

Martinsville in this spot on the schedule has produced its fair share of drama.

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. Last year was the Bowman vs. Hamlin saga. Will 2022 see another new feud?

We’ve had plenty this season already. 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.

Chastain just has to score as many stage points as possible to remain ahead of the rest below him. Then, if anyone needing points is behind him late, just let them go and not create any more unnecessary drama.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 09: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Advance Auto Parts Ford, and Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Menards/Moen Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 09, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

HMS vs. Penske?

JGR, Penske, HMS have won 15 of the last 16 Martinsville races including 3 of the last 4 belonging to HMS. There’s also been 8 straight different winners of this Fall race (Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Johnson, KyBusch, Logano, Truex, Elliott, Bowman) too. That’s an HMS win in 5 of the 8 Fall races.

Are they the favorites on Sunday?

They’ve won 3 of the last 4 at Martinsville including 5 of the last 8 Fall races. Chase Elliott won the pole and dominated the first 2 stages back in the spring before a pit road penalty relegated him to a top 10 instead of a top 5. Elliott won the 2020 Fall race en route to a Championship 4 appearance here. He also has four top fives in his last 7 Martinsville starts, three of them being in the top two.

William Byron picked up where Elliott left off in the spring. He finished 2nd in both stages and led the final 212 laps for the win. Byron has 5 top eight’s in his last 6 Martinsville starts including a runner-up in the playoff race in 2019, fourth and fifth respectively last year and a win in the spring race.

That’s one side. What about the other side? There are unfortunately two sides for them in this scenario is one that I wonder if they can just magically all the sudden turn it on.

Elliott has just two Top-10s in his last eight races including finishes of 32nd, first, 20th, 21st and 14th respectively the last five weeks. Byron has finishes of 12th, 16th, 13th and 12th the last four weeks himself with just one Top-5 finish in the last 26 points paying races.

“That’s what happens when you’re playing defense, and you have something like that happen to you. You just get stuck,” Elliott said on their gameplan last Sunday in Homestead which caught them out. “The other guys that got buried; they drove right back to the front. That’s just the difference. I think if we execute next weekend, we’ll be fine.”

If not them, then maybe this is a race setup for Team Penske then.

They had the other 2 spots in the top 4 in the spring race. Austin Cindric was a respectable 11th as a rookie too. Joey Logano has pair of top five finishes came at Martinsville in 2020 and again this past spring (2nd) to go along with 8 top 10’s in his last 9 tries. Finally for Ryan Blaney, he was 4th in the spring race while also coming home runner-up in both races in 2020. He was fourth and fifth respectively in 2019. Blaney, has 6 top fives in his last 9 tries on the Virginia paperclip overall. While he was 11th in both races last year, he did sweep both stages in the spring race.

However, Cindric has 1 career win in the season opener and Blaney hasn’t won since the 2021 regular season finale.

Past stats say your winner comes from this group, but recent say otherwise. Which is it on Sunday?

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Qualifying Leading To Stage Points

11 points separate three drivers for the final two spots into the Championship 4 entering this weekend’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. Points are going to be a premium this weekend on the Virginia paperclip because how you perform in the opening two stages can make or break your chances of fighting for a championship next weekend in Phoenix.

We know that Chrisopher Bell (-33) and Chase Briscoe (-44) absolutely have to win the race to advance. Joey Logano (Vegas win) has already clinched. The other five drivers have to focus on points and the best way of doing so starts on Saturday actually.


To get stage points, you first have to qualify well because you a day later, have a pair of 130 lap sprints early to get them. Just look at last weekend as a prime example. William Byron entered Homestead six points behind Denny Hamlin for the fourth and final wildcard spot. Byron started on the pole. Hamlin started 14th.

Byron had accumulated 17 stage points. Hamlin had just one. With Hamlin finishing seventh and Byron in 12th, it allowed Byron to leapfrog Hamlin in the points and instead turn a 6 point deficit into a 5 point advantage.

Even Ross Chastain who’s +19 ahead of the cutline isn’t safe. Two bad stages could drop him to the cutline and if someone below wins the race, he’s out.

Which is why stage points are crucial on Sunday afternoon.

The eventual race winner had a Top-5 finish in the first stage every year minus last Fall. Byron finished second in both stages this past spring.

If you want to win, you better find yourself in the top two or three by the end of the second stage too. Since we began stage racing in 2017, the eventual winner at Martinsville has finished either first (4 times), second (3 times) or third (twice) in nine of the 11 second stages.

Then, in order to win, 11 of the last 13 race winners at started in the top 10 at that. Four of the last six winners all together there have all have come from a Top-5 starting spot. The starting spots on short tracks this year for the eventual race winners: sixth (Phoenix), 13th for both Richmond races, fifth (Martinsville spring), fourth (Dover), fifth (Loudon), 20th (Bristol).

In that case, you have to look at qualifying then and who’s good on this track and who’s been good on the season.

Chastain has qualified in the top five in just two of the last 15 races. However, he does have eight starting spots in the top 6 Rows in the last nine races though too. He did only qualify 27th here in the spring race however.

Elliott has seven straight top 11 starting spots at Martinsville including three straight in the top five and two consecutive front row starts. On the season, three of his last five have placed him inside the top 10 to start race day, but five of the last eight have also seen him start 16th or worse too.

Byron has 7 top 10 starting spots in his last 8 races on the year including four of his last five being in the top three. His last three Martinsville tries were in the top 11 including two of which in the top five.

Hamlin has 13 starting spots of Row 6 or better in his last 14 at Martinsville including 8 of the last 10 in the top 3 Rows. However, he was only 25th in the spring and enters with 7 of his last 10 qualifying efforts being 11th or worse including 6 of those 7 14th or worse at that.

Blaney has 1 top 5 starting spot in his last 19 races but two of his last three have been Row 3 or better. 5 of his last 6 have been Row 7 or better too so he’s within striking distance of points. He’s only started outside the top 6 Rows at Martinsville just twice in 13 tries but has just 2 top 5 starting spots in the last 7. For a driver needing max points, he may be a safer bet to finish in the back half of the top 10 in each stage instead. Which then could alter his focus for Stage 2 on for just a win and positioning himself for that.

Bell has 1 top 10 starting spot in 5 Martinsville tries. However, that was a 7th place effort in the spring. He has 8 top 4 Row starting spots in the last 9 weeks and could very well be in a position to put himself for max stage points and even a win.

Briscoe has 3 top 10 starting spots since mid July with one of those on a road course and the other on a superspeedway. He did qualify second at Bristol though but was just 19th here in April.

By these trends, Elliott and Byron could very well accumulate plenty of stage points to stay afloat heading to the final stage. Hamlin could remain within striking distance while Blaney, Bell and Briscoe would be eyeing a win only.

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