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 16 races. However, he does have nine starting spots in the top 6 Rows in the last 10 races though too including starting 9th on Sunday.
Elliott has 8 straight top 11 starting spots at Martinsville including four straight in the top five and three consecutive front row starts. On the season, four of his last six have placed him inside the top 10 to start race day.
Byron has 7 top 10 starting spots in his last 9 races on the year including four of his last six being in the top three. Entering this weekend, his last three Martinsville tries were in the top 11 including two of which in the top five. However, he’ll only start 25th.
Hamlin has 14 starting spots of Row 6 or better in his last 15 at Martinsville including 8 of the last 11 in the top 3 Rows. However, he was only 25th in the spring and now has 8 of his last 11 qualifying efforts being 11th or worse including 6 of those 8 14th or worse at that.
Blaney now has 2 top 5 starting spots in his last 20 races but three of his last four have been Row 3 or better. 6 of his last 7 have been Row 7 or better too so he’s within striking distance of points.
Bell has 1 top 10 starting spot in 6 Martinsville tries. However, that was a 7th place effort in the spring. He’s 20th for Sundays race. He had 8 top 4 Row starting spots in the last 9 weeks.
Briscoe has 4 top 10 starting spots now since mid July with one of those on a road course and the other on a superspeedway. He did qualify second at Bristol though and third for Sundays race.
If Sunday looks like we think it will, then Hamlin can still get stage points in both segments while Blaney can get a top 5 finish in each himself. That could put Byron on the bad side of the cutline entering the final stage if not down to 6th.
For Blaney, he was in no mans land entering this weekend. By being 18 points arrears, it in that tricky spot to where you focus on just winning the race or do you go for stage points too. If he was likely 25 or more points back, then the plan would be simple – just win. With 18 points back, you’re not necessarily focusing on the win in this scenario because you don’t want to punt on stage points if you can possibly make the Championship 4 on points.
With Kyle Larson’s win last week, it opens up another wildcard spot to Phoenix. That means at least 2 spots will get by on points. With where Byron and Hamlin are starting, how much does this change his plans?
Blaney enters 13 points behind Hamlin for 5th, the first spot out. However, if Hamlin gets back end of the top 5 stage points and Blaney gets a top 3-4 finish in each stage and even Byron without a stage point at all, that could potentially put Blaney into the final round on points now.
So how much does this change their initial plan?
He’s finished in the top 5 in 5 of his last 7 Martinsville starts.
For Hamlin and Christopher Bell, did Toyota do enough to gain from their spring race struggles 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.”
They only qualified 11th (Denny Hamlin), 18th (Kyle Busch), 20th (Christopher Bell), 24th (Bubba Wallace), 26th (Ty Gibbs) and 27th (Martin Truex Jr.) on Saturday.
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.