MARTINSVILLE, VA — It’s time to set the Championship 4. However, does the winner of Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) absolutely have to be one of the 8 playoff drivers? Not necessarily. Alex Bowman wasn’t championship eligible when he won last year’s Fall Martinsville race. Kyle Larson wasn’t championship eligible when he won last weekend either.
Three times has the Martinsville Fall race winner not been a part of the playoffs and all three times they were Hendrick Motorsports drivers (2005 – Jeff Gordon, 2014 – Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2021 – Bowman). On top of that, five times has a non-playoff driver won the ninth race of the postseason (2005 – Kyle Busch, 2011 – Kasey Kahne, 2015 – Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2017 – Matt Kenseth and 2021 – Alex Bowman) too.
This Sunday’s race however could go either way.
Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports have won 15 of the last 16 Martinsville races including 3 of the last 4 belonging to HMS. Factor in the 9th playoff race and these three teams have combined to have won each of the last 7.
There’s also been 8 straight different winners of this Fall race too (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman).
That’s an HMS win in 5 of the last 8 Fall races. They’ve also won 12 of the 18 years of this playoff race and a record setting 27 times ever here. That’s more than double (13 wins) for the next best by Joe Gibbs Racing. However, their stats are impeccable at Martinsville but not on the season.
Chase 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.
William 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.
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.
Can they just turn it on all the sudden in Sunday’s race? Byron starts a disappointing 25th, but Elliott rolls off on the front row again in 2nd. He’ll start alongside HMS driver Kyle Larson who earned the pole and eyeing a 2nd straight playoff win.
Team Penske had the other two 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-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. Finally for Ryan Blaney, he 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.
Is this their race to lose instead? Blaney hasn’t won all year and is winless in his last 44 starts. Cindric has 1 career Cup win and that came 34 races ago. Blaney though starts 4th giving HMS and Penske 3 of the top 4 starters.
Denny Hamlin has 5 Martinsville wins, 16 top 5’s and 1,987 laps led there. However, four of his last five Martinsville finishes have seen him come home 11th or worse (28th in the spring) too. He starts 11th.
Christopher 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. He’ll roll off 20th on Sunday afternoon.
Ross Chastian was 5th in the spring race while Chase Briscoe was 9th. Chastain also has finished runner-up in the last two races (Las Vegas, Homestead). The last time he was runner-up in two consecutive races, he won the next race (COTA). He starts 9th with Briscoe in 3rd.
So, does 1 of these drivers win?
What about one of these four non-playoff drivers?
Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the last six Martinsville races. The only ones he didn’t win was the last two Fall races to where he led 129 laps in the Fall of 2020 and was fourth last year. Truex, has seven top-5’s in his last 10 tries on the Virginia paperclip and coming off of a race he had a chance to win last week. His teammate Kyle Busch has 13 Top-10 finishes in his last 14 at Martinsville including a runner-up last Halloween. He also has two Top-5 finishes in the last three weeks as well.
Austin Dillon finished third in the spring race and fourth last week, so worth a look. Brad Keselowski has six Top-5 finishes in his last eight starts in Martinsville including 10 in his last 13 overall. He has four Top-3’s in his last seven there too and coming off of an impressive top five finish last Sunday. He starts 6th too.
How The Race Will Look
I expect a lot of tame racing early. Each stage lasts 130 laps and with how quickly these cars get around this .526-mile paperclip, expect those laps to click by with ease. Plus, with this new car having wider tires and the ability of the drivers to shift, it may be another race to where it’s difficult to pass, meaning track position is everything.
With conditions supposed to be in the upper 50s ambient and only into the low 60s late, if there’s plenty of cloud cover, it could be even more difficult to pass too.
It was night conditions and in the 40s this spring which was a single file processional. I don’t know if these conditions are honestly much better.
A five-time winner at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin turned in an uncharacteristically poor performance in the spring race as a result of that fact. He started 25th and finished 28th, fighting an ill-handling No. 11 Toyota all the way. Clearly, Hamlin will have to improve dramatically to climb into the Championship 4 Round.
“It’s going to be a fight,” Hamlin acknowledged, as he’ll start 11th on Sunday. “It’s definitely not going to be easy. I expect that passing is going to be very difficult, so track position is going to be super important. We’ve got to go in there Saturday and qualify up front and have good short-run speed in addition to the long-run speed.
“That has hurt us pretty bad the last couple of weeks (qualifying at Las Vegas and Homestead), but knowing how difficult it’s going to be to pass, I think we’ll put a little more emphasis on that and hopefully be able to get some stage points to give ourselves a chance to advance.”
Stage points will be everything for those on the cutline. Ross Chastain is +19 and did finish 5th here in April, but that was a day in which he started well outside of the top 20. It took him all night to find the front and as a result, he had 0 stage points.
“When NASCAR decided on the schedule, it was no accident that Martinsville was going to be the race to get into the Championship 4,” Chastain said. “We’ve seen year-over-year, it produces some crazy races. I don’t expect anything different. It’s another place that I am looking for a little bit of speed at.
“It was challenging to pass in the spring, but we were a car that went from around 27th and drove to fifth, but it took me all race to get there. It’s been high on my list to be better there. We tested there, and I am still looking for more speed.”
That can lessen that 19 point advantage rather quickly. Luckily for him, he starts 9th. Chase Elliott starts 2nd and I can see both he and Chastain pulling their advantage even bigger by the end of the second stage. With Blaney and Hamlin starting where they are, I can see Hamlin getting by Byron for that 4th and final wildcard spot entering the final stage with Blaney and Byron close behind.
The final stage will be the chaotic one but without many cautions early, I don’t see strategy playing a role to flip the track position role.
Xfinity 500 Top Stats
• Four of the last six winners all have come from a Top-5 starting spot
• 11 of the last 13 started in the top 10 at that.
Xfinity 500 Live Trends
• The eventual race winner had a Top-5 finish in the first stage every year minus last Fall.
• William 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. Since we began stage racing in 2017, the eventual winner has finished either first (4 times), second (3 times) or third (twice) in nine of the 11 second stages.
• 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 three of the seven short track races run this season, the driver to lead the most laps won the race in the end.
• In four of the seven races, those laps all occurred in the final stage. In fact, Chris Buescher at Bristol is the only winner to have led more than 19 laps in the first stage. The race winner is better to be found in Stage 2.
• Eight of the 11 races under the stage era here saw the driver to lead the most laps win the race in the end.
- 9 Elliott
- 12 Blaney
- 14 Briscoe
- 22 Logano
- 11 Hamlin
- Joey Logano
- Chase Elliott
- Ross Chastain
- Denny Hamlin