How Aggressive Will Drivers Get?
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. Joey 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.
Can Martinsville Winner Win The Championship Next Sunday In Phoenix Too?
We’re down to one race left of the third round in the NASCAR playoffs. That will take place Sunday at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway.
Seven drivers enter the .526-mile short track with championship aspirations still, but realistically only two of them are going to have to win Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) in order to get themselves to the Championship 4 next weekend at the Phoenix Raceway.
The thing is though, the odds aren’t on their sides to win this weekend as well as next too. That could affect their hopes of winning the championship now.
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 just 2020 for the 2nd time in a three year span as well as three times in the last six years.
o In 2006, Jimmie Johnson won from the ninth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first of seven NASCAR Cup Series championships. It was only win during the 2006 Playoffs.
o In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won from the fourth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his second consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The Playoff victory was the first of a record setting four straight postseason wins during the 2007 Playoffs (Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix).
o In 2008, Jimmie Johnson won from the first starting position at Martinsville Speedway (Qualifying was cancelled) and went on to win his third consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three victories during the 2008 Playoffs.
o In 2011, Tony Stewart won from the fourth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his third NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was one of a record setting five Playoff victories for Stewart during the 2011 postseason.
o In 2016, Jimmie Johnson won from the third starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his record tying seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three Playoff victories during the 2016 postseason.
o In 2018, Joey Logano won from the 10th starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
o In 2020, Chase Elliott won from the eighth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Also, five times the winner of the ninth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has gone on to win the title that same season.
o In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won from the sixth starting position at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his second consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The Playoff victory was the fourth of a record setting four straight postseason wins during the 2007 Playoffs (Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix).
o In 2008, Jimmie Johnson won from the pole at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his third consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his third of three victories during the 2008 Playoffs.
o In 2009, Jimmie Johnson won from the third starting position at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his fourth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series championship. The victory was his fourth during the 2009 postseason.
o In 2014, Kevin Harvick won from the third starting position at Phoenix Raceway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three Playoff victories during the 2014 postseason.
o In 2020, Chase Elliott won from the eighth starting position at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. The win was his second of three Playoff victories during the 2020 postseason.
Sounds great for the winner Sunday, right? The thing is, in saying the stat above, the Martinsville-Phoenix two-step only moved to the final two races of the year just two years ago. They’re 1-for-2 in producing this feat. 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.
Has Martinsville Changed?
In the past, Martinsville was a one groove race track and if you were on the outside in the corners, you were toast. That led to games being played on pit road to lineup on the inside on the ensuing restarts. Also, Martinsville was a track you worried a lot of about brakes. With two long straightaways kept together by two u-turn type corners, it led to a lot of brake failures too.
Over the course of 500 laps, it was a true test of man vs. car vs. track. Then, as technology has advanced and the car has gotten safer, the parts stronger and the drivers better, Martinsville has changed its character.
The brakes were all better and could easily last 500 laps if done right. The thing is, as the brakes got hotter, the tires would bust. Now, Goodyear has even brought a better tire to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Brakes and tires aren’t as big of a worry coming to this place anymore as they would have been a decade or two ago.
Then, the car is sturdier where you can bump and bang and not have as much catastrophic damage to it.
On top of that, the cars and downforce levels have allowed drivers to race side-by-side longer around the .526-mile track. While the low groove is the preferred line, you’re still able to make passes on the outside if you have a fast car.
Finally, the choose rule has changed this all too with the sense you don’t need to play any games on pit road anymore. You can choose which lane you restart in. That’s purely dependent on your preference.
As a result, Martinsville isn’t like the Martinsville of old but still races like it in the sense.
Does Byron/Chastain Choke?
Denny Hamlin has been here before. He’s made it to the final round four times already. But for William Byron and Ross Chastain, they’ve never made it this far in the postseason. Does the pressure of the situation ahead on Sunday get the best of them?
Each are in right now. Hamlin is lurking just 5 points behind. A lot can happen over the course of a 500 lap race. If something does for Byron and Chastain, do they have the right mindset to bounce back?
What happens if a situation like last week occurs where Hamlin is restarting on the front row late and Byron is outside the top 10? Does Byron have the maturity to handle it and do what he has to do to get by?
What happens if Byron or Chastain need a win late? Do they use the bumper?
Hamlin’s veteran presence could be a massive advantage on Sunday because he’s been here. He’s done this. I mean Ryan Blaney has choked for two straight weeks now and he’s a veteran. Can he put it past him on Sunday?
The playoffs take everything out of you and this round is as tense as any other, if not more. Which is why I wonder if Byron and Chastain have what it takes deep down to advance on when someone like Hamlin or even the 2020 series champion and 2020 regular season champion in Chase Elliott are chasing.
Who Advances To The Championship 4?
Joey Logano is the only one who still knows that he’ll be racing for a championship next week in Phoenix. Ross Chastain (+19), Chase Elliott (+11) and William Byron (+5) are each above the cutline. Does anyone bump them out?
Denny Hamlin (-5), Ryan Blaney (-18), Christopher Bell (-33) and Chase Briscoe (-44) will ty to do so. Can they?
Chastain was 5th here this past spring and has two straight runner-up finishes on the season. He also has 5 top 7’s in the last 7 weeks at that. I feel like he’s safe. Elliott won the pole and dominated the first two 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-5’s in his last seven Martinsville starts, three of them being in the top two.
Byron picked up where Elliott left off in the spring. He finished second in both stages and led the final 212 laps for the win. Byron has five Top-8’s in his last six 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.
They’ve won three of the last four at Martinsville including five of the last eight Fall races there at that. However, Elliott has just two top 10’s in his last 8 races including finishes of 32nd, 1st, 20th, 21st and 14th respectively the last 5 weeks. Byron has finishes of 12th, 16th, 13th and 12th the last 4 weeks himself with just 1 top 5 finish in the last 26 points paying races.
Can they turn it on all the sudden on Sunday?
Four of his last five Martinsville finishes for Hamlin have seen him come home 11th or worse (28th in the spring).
Blaney was fourth 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 six Top-5s in his last nine tries on the Virginia paperclip overall. While he was 11th in both races last year, he did sweep both stages in the spring race. 4 of his last 6 races on the season have seen him finish 16th or worse.
Bell has three Top 8’s, two of which are Top 5’s, in four Truck Series starts at Martinsville and was seventh and 20th the last two April races in the Cup Series. For Briscoe, he was 9th in the spring but has 1 top 5 on short tracks this season though too.
So who makes it in?
I can see Logano winning again. He has a pair of Top-5 finishes came at Martinsville in 2020 and again this past spring (2nd) to go along with eight Top-10’s in his last nine tries.
As far as who joins him in the Championship 4?
I feel like it’s the same four as we have right now…