Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) race preview at Martinsville

It’s elimination time this weekend at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) will shape the Championship 4 field in regards on who’s fighting for a championship next Sunday in the Arizona desert.

Right now, only Joey Logano knows that he’ll be apart of that foray into the madness in Phoenix on the drivers side. Kyle Larson’s No. 5 team joins Logano on the owners championship side.

The Balance Between Aggressive And Overly Aggressive

For the other seven championship eligible drivers in the playoff field, who advances on and to what risks are they willing to take?

We know the first couple of stages could be somewhat tame. Who wants to create early enemies that could cost you later? Plus, why risk damage to your own car when you may need a clean car in the final stage?

Also, this race could be hard to pass. Tires may not fall off and if everyone is still shifting, how do you pass the car in front? Better yet, how do you get to their bumper?

Which is why the final laps could be chaotic in a way that if there’s a late race restart, watch out. Logano admitted that he wished he could have moved William Byron here in the spring. He said the restart was his only shot because once they got single file, he couldn’t catch him due to the dirty air and how these cars don’t close up as easily here anymore.

No one is making that mistake a second time? Or do they?

NASCAR has sent a message to this garage that “Boys Have At It” isn’t what they thought it was. Bubba Wallace intentionally wrecked Kyle Larson just two races ago in Vegas. He was suspended for a week. Can NASCAR really look the other way if someone tries to do the same on Sunday?

The precedent is there. What’s the difference between someone crashing a driver in Martinsville than Vegas other than speed that these cars are traveling?

You also can’t expect help late from a teammate because of the Cole Custer situation. Which as a result, penalties could be in your head late if you’re the trailing car or cars.

To win this race, you’re going to have to be aggressive in getting the lead. It’s just how far are you willing to go and what risk are you willing to take? Do you want to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Phoenix with a championship on the line?

That may be what has to be done though in order to get there.

Plus, this race has seen its fair share of chaos.

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 occur?

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.

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.

2 drivers can only get by on wins. 1 more is -18 and has a tall task at hand. However, just 5 points separate 4th from 5th while Chase Elliott is only +11 on the cutline but just +6 on his teammate for the final spot. That’s key because if someone below the cutline wins and William Byron outscores him by 6 or more points, then he, not Elliott, advances to Phoenix.

In turn, it’s bound to cause some hurt feelings in the end. I can make a case that 5 of the 7 still trying to get to Phoenix 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.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 09: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 LLumar Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 09, 2022 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Hendrick/Penske The Favorites, But Are They Really?

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?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 16: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano Playing With House Money

For Logano’s sake, he’s got the advantage of being the only driver right now that’s had his team be able to massage his Phoenix car for multiple weeks now. With Martinsville being the same short track package of Phoenix, one could say in theory Logano is going to use this Sunday as a 500 lap test session.

However, that in turn could create him to finding victory lane too.

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 in just 2020 for the 2nd time in a three-year span as well as three times in the last six years. 

Granted, the 2020 was the first year that this race was moved to the Round of 8 elimination race. In that scenario, five times has the winner of the ninth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has gone on to win the title that same season.

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 a couple of years ago 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.”

He won again this year in Vegas in a similar spot.

“Doesn’t hurt,” Logano continued. “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.”

On how he approached the final two races?

“We approach them to win, just like we always do,” Logano said on his approach over the next two weeks. “Same meetings and prep like we always do.  I just assume that we’ll probably focus a little bit more on Phoenix at this point.”

Cliff Daniels, Kyle Larson’s crew chief said the same thing last year following their Texas win to kick off the Round of 8. 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.”

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 three times in the last six 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 3 of the last 4 years and won the title in the other.

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

Elliott changed that in 2020.

“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?

There’s the role in this of the drivers not already locked in being in championship mode still this week while the few that aren’t are onto the Championship 4 have been relaxed the last few weeks. Can they flip that switch back on that easily or does being in a do-or-die mindset at Martinsville keep those drivers’ minds more focused a week later?

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. 3 of the 4 last year were wildcards. Kyle Busch won the championship in 2019 as one. Brad Keselowski was in 2020. 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 8 years thus far. We will have one wildcard 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, the last 3 years 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 and Phoenix are the short track package.

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 (similar package) 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 in 2020 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.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, impedes Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, celebration after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Walkoff Win?

Christopher Bell’s win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course was the sixth-time in the ‘elimination-style’ Playoff Era (2014-2022) that a driver below the cut line in points to advance to the next round has won his way into the next round. Bell entered the Round of 12 elimination race 45 points down. He was facing a must win and did just that.

Kyle Larson was +18 and Daniel Suarez were each +12 and both were bumped out via Bell’s win and Chase Briscoe’s (-12) pursuit.

Below are the five other times the Playoff magic has occurred.

In 2014, heading into the Round of 12 elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway, Brad Keselowski was 10th in the Playoff standings and won the race earning his spot in the Round of 8.

In 2014, heading into the Round of 8 elimination race at Phoenix Raceway, Kevin Harvick was eighth in the Playoff standings and won the race earning his spot in the Championship 4 Round. Harvick would then win again the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale to pocket his first career Cup championship.

In 2015, heading into the Round of 16 elimination race at Dover Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was ranked 15th in the Playoff standings and won the race earning his spot in the Round of 12.

In 2019, heading into the Round of 8 elimination race at Phoenix Raceway, Denny Hamlin was fifth in the Playoff standings and won the race earning his spot in the Championship 4 Round.

In 2020, heading into the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway, Chase Elliott was fifth in the Playoff standings tied with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman in fourth and won the race earning his spot in the Championship 4 Round. Elliott would then go on to win at Phoenix Raceway the following weekend and take home his first career NASCAR Cup Series title.

Does it happen again on Sunday?

Ryan Blaney is -18, Bell is -33 and Chase Briscoe is -44.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – APRIL 10: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Did Toyota Improve?

Stage points are likely going to determine who advances to Phoenix with championship dreams intact or not. With such a small margin between the top 4 drivers going for the 3 spots, who can get points in the 2 stages?

Qualifying is crucial to that because William Byron was on the pole last week and netted 17 stage points in the process. Denny Hamlin started 14th and scored just one. Byron entered the day -6 and left +5 over Hamlin.

What happens on Sunday?

It’s going to make or break a championship run.

For Hamlin and Christopher Bell, did Toyota do enough to gain from their spring race stuggles here?

“We tested Homestead. We have a baseline there so we know we aren’t going to venture too far from there. Same with Martinsville, we tested there.”

Toyota went 6-7-16-20-22-28 in April with leading 0 of the 403 laps. Did they do enough at that test to close that gap?

“Now that we’ve created some more data points we can lead into next year,” Hamlin continued. We just need a little more potential in the car to have more speed.”

Bell scored a walkoff win in the Round of 12 and feels better about now than he did then.

“We ran well in the spring. I definitely feel better about winning there than I did at the Charlotte road course,” he says.

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