Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – As competitive as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs have already been, it’s safe to say the intensity will step up a notch or two on Sunday in the opening race of the Round of 8 – the final round to set the Championship 4.
Regular season champion and defending race winner, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch holds a slim one-point edge over Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick entering Sunday’s First Data 500 (at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The top four in the standings – Busch to fourth place Chase Elliott – are separated by a larger 37-point margin. And Elliott holds only a three-point edge over Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch. Aric Almirola is 12 points below the fourth place cutoff line.
Last week’s Kansas winner Elliott has certainly raised his game for the Playoffs and is the only multi-time Playoff race winner still championship eligible. However, three other members of the Elite Eight have won at Martinsville recently. Kurt Busch won in 2014, Kyle Busch has wins in 2016 and last year’s Playoff race and Bowyer won at the track just this Spring.
It creates an exciting proposition to see who will be able to step-up this weekend and guarantee their position in the Championship 4 for the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
A win by a Playoff driver may be crucial this week as it’s actually a couple of recently eliminated Playoff contenders – Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin – who have been masters of Martinsville in recent years. Johnson’s nine wins are most among active drivers and Hamlin’s five is second-most. They also boast the two best driver ratings at the track. Kyle Busch and Harvick are third and fifth best, respectively – tops among the current Playoff drivers.
“I think the best position to be in at any racetrack is in the lead,” said Harvick, who has finished fifth in the last two races at the track and scored his only win while still at Richard Childress Racing in 2011.
“You want to be in control of the race and try to get yourself in a position to where you can have a good, clean restart and have as much clear track, especially at Martinsville, just for the fact that there is so much pushing and shoving on the restarts to get to the bottom lane that you want to try to be as far forward as possible.”
Busch has had more recent success, not only capturing last year’s Playoff win but leading an impressive 352 of the 500 laps to win his first race at the track in 2016. He has two victories and two runner-up finishes (including second place to Bowyer this spring) in his last six starts. In fact, his 1,324 total laps out front at Martinsville is second only to nine-time winner Johnson’s 2,862.
“I think it’s going to be good,” Busch said. “I really look forward to this round. I feel like it’s our best round. We run well at all three of those places and we won at Texas in the spring, we won Martinsville last fall and Phoenix has been getting better for us, too.
“We just need to continue to execute and do a good job and make sure that we mind our Ps and Qs. There are certainly some areas that we need to clean up right now and continue to get better because, when you get to Homestead-Miami – you’ve got to get there first, but when you get there – you better be picture perfect, so hopefully we can get it all sorted out.”
ROUND OF 6 COMMENCES
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series begins its playoff push with the Round of 6 kicking off a three-race stretch in Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (at 1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Two-time and defending series champion Johnny Sauter takes a sizable 28-point lead over the championship field into the race – an event he’s won a record three times previously. Brett Moffitt, Noah Gragson and Grant Enfinger round out the current top-four positions. Justin Haley and former two-time series champ Matt Crafton are on the outside of the top-four. Haley sits only six points behind fourth place Enfinger and Crafton is 15-points behind that cutoff line.
Since 2013, Sauter has scored two wins at Martinsville. Crafton (2015) and defending race winner Gragson are the only other Playoff drivers to visit Victory Lane at the historic half-miler.
Enfinger is the only member of the current Playoff six to have won during the Playoffs this year – scoring a dramatic victory at Las Vegas in September.