MARTINSVILLE, VA — It’s an all Hendrick Motorsports front row for Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN). Kyle Larson sped to the top of the speed charts in the final round of Busch Light Pole Qualifying on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway with a top lap of 96.078 mph in his No. 5 Chevrolet. It’s his 14th career NASCAR Cup Series pole, 5 of which coming this season alone.
In the races that he’s started on the pole, he’s had a Hendrick driver starting alongside in 4 of them. For the Daytona 500 it was Alex Bowman. In Sonoma, Coke Zero Sugar 400 and now Martinsville, it’s Chase Elliott.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the start of this year’s race will look a lot like last year’s with the same pair sharing the front row.
Elliott went 96.019 mph in his No. 9 Chevrolet for his eighth front row starting spot of the season and second straight October race here that he started 2nd to Larson being on the pole. It’s also his third straight front row starting spot here in general. He led 289 laps from starting second in this race last year and 185 from the pole back in April.
Chase Briscoe (96.019 mph) starts third in his No. 14 Ford. His last three starting spots on the season entering this weekend was 17th, 16th and 19th respectively. Ryan Blaney (95.927 mph) starts 4th in his No. 12 Ford. It’s his 3rd top 6 starting spot in the last 4 races and 6th top 10 start here in the last 7 tries at that.
Cole Custer (95.733 mph) rounded out the top 5 in his No. 41 Ford.
Toyota’s Struggles Continue
At one point not so long ago, the Toyota’s were the favorites when we came each trip to the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. Coming into this race just one season ago, Toyota drivers had combined to have won 3 of the last 4 races on the .526-mile short track.
However, they’ve since struggled.
After leading 0 of 403 laps this past April and taking spots 6-7-16-20-22-28, they only qualified 11th (Denny Hamlin), 18th (Kyle Busch), 20th (Christopher Bell), 24th (Bubba Wallace), 26th (Ty Gibbs) and 27th (Martin Truex Jr.).
Can they improve on Sunday?
Byron Should Be Worried
William Byron qualified 5th and led 212 laps en route to a dominating victory here this past spring. However, he’ll only start in 25th on Sunday. While Denny Hamlin didn’t advance to the final round, he still starts 11th. Ryan Blaney did make the final round though and will roll off 4th.
Byron leads Hamlin by just 5 points entering the Round of 8 elimination race and 18 points clear of Blaney. However, with starting where he is, it may be hard for Byron to score any stage points on Sunday. By comparison, Ross Chastain started 27th in April and while he finished 5th, he had no stage points that night.
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.
Does Blaney’s Plan Change?
Ryan Blaney 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 William Byron starting 25th and Blaney now in 4th, how much does this change his plans? How much does Denny Hamlin starting 11th alter their though process too?
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.
SHR Looks Stout
Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t typically a contender at Martinsville, but on Saturday, they absolutely were. They had 2 of the top 3 speeds in Group B’s practice session as well as having 3 of their 4 cars advance to the final round in qualifying as well.
The worst starter for them is Aric Almirola in 15th. Chase Briscoe starts 3rd, Cole Custer 5th and Kevin Harvick in 8th. That’s 3 of the top 8 starters including a pair in the top 5 of the organization including a car in 3 of the top 4 Rows.
Elliott, Chastain Looking Stout
Ross Chastain and Chase Elliott both enter as the top 2 drivers in the wildcard standings. With Elliott starting on the front row and Chastain in 9th, with a teammate in Daniel Suarez directly in front of him, both could extend their advantages over the rest on Sunday.
They start ahead of the drivers that they need to and can head to the final stage each 20 or more points above the cutline.
Row 1: Kyle Larson (P – owners), Chase Elliott (P)
Row 2: Chase Briscoe (P), Ryan Blaney (P)
Row 3: Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski
Row 4: Daniel Suarez, Kevin Harvick
Row 5: Ross Chastain (P), Harrison Burton R
Row 6: Denny Hamlin (P), Joey Logano (P)
Row 7: Michael McDowell, Corey LaJoie
Row 8: Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon
Row 9: Noah Gragson, Kyle Busch
Row 10: Todd Gilliland R, Christopher Bell (P)
Row 11: AJ Allmendinger, Chris Buescher
Row 12: Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace
Row 13: William Byron (P), Ty Gibbs
Row 14: Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick
Row 15: Justin Haley, Austin Cindric R
Row 16: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ty Dillon
Row 17: Landon Cassill, BJ McLeod
Row 18: JJ Yeley, Cody Ware