MARTINSVILLE, VA — I kept stressing all week in most of my previews on how much qualifying was going to dictate who makes the Championship 4 or not in the NASCAR Cup Series. With such a small margin between the top 4 drivers going for the 3 spots, who could get points in the 2 stages?
Qualifying was crucial to that because William Byron was on the pole last week in Homestead 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 this time around in Martinsville on Sunday?
Byron qualified 25th. Hamlin qualified 11th. That was the difference. Hamlin went from 11th to 1st in in 120 laps and swept both stages scoring max stage points (20). Byron was a lap down at the end of both stages and had 0 stage points on the day.
It pushed him to 25 points below the cutline entering the final stage. It was essentially a must-win at this point but with being so far back and lacking track position on a day it was tough to pass, Byron was on the outside looking in when the checkered flag flew in the Xfinity 500.
He even threw a Hail Mary to get track position with the final caution occurring on Lap 466. Byron was running 11th at the time. Rudy Fugle called for a two-tire stop which brought up him to 5th on the final restart. Unfortunately, he just didn’t have enough and would fall to 8th at the end.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t really in the game,” Byron said. “I knew that early on in the race, we were making some progress, but we just struggled all day. The first three-quarters of the race were pretty miserable. Nothing like what we had in the spring. We were just tight with not a lot of pace. The No. 24 Chevy team kept their heads down and got a decent finish out of it, so that was a good lesson for the day.”
Byron has finished 12th or worse in 4 of the last 5 weeks and has had just 1 top 5 finish since his win here in April. That’s why it was remarkable that he was even in the position that he was in entering the day above the cutline. 6 top 10’s, 1 top 5 in a 26 race winless streak and to still enter +5 was Byron playing the system perfectly.
However, it caught up to him on Sunday.