Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 will be decided by Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and expectations are high that positions in this championship foursome are still very much up for grabs.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano is the only driver locked-in to a position in the Championship 4 with his victory at Kansas two weeks ago. Regular season champion Kevin Harvick leads the points standings by 15 points over Denny Hamlin – and 17 points over Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski.
It will be up to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott (both -42 points from Keselowski), Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. (-53) and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch (-98) to shake up the current Playoff picture with the ultimate clutch victory on Sunday.
No matter where he may be ranked in the points standings, Truex is the obvious race favorite. The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion has won the last two races on the historic half-miler. His 2019 Playoff win at Martinsville was a masterly performance – leading 464 of the 500 laps in his No. 19 JGR Toyota. And Truex’s victory there this Spring was also impressive. He crossed the finish line a commanding 4.705-seconds ahead of runner-up Ryan Blaney.
Truex has five top-five finishes in the last six Martinsville races. The last driver to win back-to-back races before Truex was Jimmie Johnson in 2012-13. Seven times a driver has won three Martinsville races in a row – most recently, current competitors Denny Hamlin (2009-10) and Johnson (2006-07).
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have won the last three penultimate races in the championship schedule – the next to last race of the season.
“It’s high,” Truex said of his confidence level heading to Martinsville. “I’m excited about going to Martinsville. We know we can win there and obviously we’ve shown that in the past.
“It’s a new race and a new week. We have to figure out how to be better than we’ve been there before because I feel like everybody else will get better too. I’m looking forward to it and I’m excited for the opportunity to get to do to this. Hopefully we can go there and do what we have to do to put ourselves in another championship race.”
It won’t be easy. Motivation is in no short supply – among the eight drivers vying for a championship berth or among the rest of the field with a wide assortment of personal storylines. Defending series champion Kyle Busch has been eliminated from playoff contention, but his victory at Texas last week extended his personal win streak to 16 seasons. And seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t in the Playoff hunt at this point, but he is certainly focused on ending his Hall of Fame career with one more race trophy celebration.
As for the Playoff drivers, Truex’s teammate Hamlin is the odds-on favorite statistically at Martinsville. His five wins at the track are most among the championship-eligible drivers. He has 21 top-10 finishes in 29 starts at the tight half-miler with top five efforts in three of the last four races. His last Martinsville victory, however, was in 2015 – 11 races ago.
Keselowski and Kurt Busch are the only other multi-time Martinsville winners with a pair of trophies each. Keselowski, who has top-10 finishes in the last four races coming to Martinsville and has finished top-five in the last four races there, including a win in 2019.
Busch, who has alternated between top-10 runs and DNFs in the last four Playoff races, definitely finds himself in a must-win position on Sunday. His two Martinsville wins are more than a decade apart (2002 and 2014) but he has three top-10 finishes in his last four races at the track.
Teammates Bowman and Elliott are also in a must-win scenario. Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet has top-10 finishes in the three Playoff races coming to Martinsville, but has only a pair of top-10 finishes at the track in nine previous races. He was sixth in the Spring but 30th in the 2019 Playoff race.
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, was fifth in the Spring race at Martinsville and his career-best showing at the track is runner-up in the 2019 Spring race. His Playoff run has been inconsistent. He won at the Charlotte ROVAL and has five top-10 efforts, but also three finishes of 20th or worse – including a 20th place last week at Texas.
Both have to be encouraged by Hendrick Motorsports Martinsville track record. The team’s 24 victories is most among the competition and it scored a top-10 sweep of all four entries in the Spring race.
“For us, we need to go win,” Elliott said. “That’s really the bottom line. I am not even going to look at points because, in my opinion, it really just doesn’t matter. If you can’t win races and win them consistently in the Series you aren’t going to win a championship, anyway.”
Xfinity Playoff contenders face elimination
Although last week’s thrilling race at Texas Motor Speedway had all the makings and feel of an elimination race, it’s actually Saturday afternoon’s Draft Top 250 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) that will officially decide which four of the eight current NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff drivers will contend for the 2020 title.
A last lap, last corner pass for the victory at Texas dramatically affected the outlook for this weekend’s race. Harrison Burton – who is not championship eligible – passed Noah Gragson – who is championship eligible – to earn his third win of the year.
That victorious maneuver was understandably heart-breaking for Gragson but it simultaneously created a nail-biter of a scenario for Martinsville this week in the first NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the half-mile track since Kevin Harvick won in July, 2006.
The top four ranked drivers following Saturday’s Halloween afternoon race will move forward with eligibility to race for the 2020 championship on Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Chase Briscoe is the only competitor already in the show for sure after winning at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago.
Austin Cindric, a five-race winner in 2020, is second in the standings, followed by three-race winners Justin Allgaier and Justin Haley.
Brandon Jones is the first driver below the cutoff line, four points behind Haley. Ross Chastain is 15 points back, followed by Gragson (-24) and Ryan Sieg (-43).
Among the Playoff contenders, Gragson is the only driver to have visited Martinsville Speedway Victory Lane previously. The driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet won a NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race there in October, 2017. In fact, he boasts a stellar 4-for-4 mark in top-10s in his four truck starts, never finishing worse than seventh.
That’s particularly encouraging news for Gragson, who has three runner-up finishes in the last five Playoff races, but still finds himself rebounding from a disappointing 36th-place outcome at Kansas in this round’s opener. He was a corner away from a victory last week at Texas.
“The way last week ended has definitely fueled a fire to go out to Martinsville and try to dominate the race to get us into the Championship 4,” Gragson said. “This team deserves to be fighting for a championship and I am going to do everything possible on the track to get it done. It definitely gives me more confidence that we are heading to Martinsville, a place where I have had success in the past in the Truck Series.
“I’m just ready to get out there and do what we have to do to get to Phoenix.”
Certainly the frontrunners expect a highly-motivated Gragson to be a factor this weekend. Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, holds a 14-point advantage atop the cut-off line. He’s competed in three Truck Series races at Martinsville with a best finish of 10th in 2017. He’d like to put together a more consistent showing this week going forward after a 34th-place finish at Talladega followed by a top 10 at Bristol; a 28th-place finish at Kansas followed by a top five at Texas last week.
He expects this weekend’s all-important race at an essentially new venue for the drivers to be a legitimate wild card.
“We’ve seen in the Xfinity Series this year even guys that you don’t expect to run up front even on some of these short tracks because our cars don’t have a lot of downforce,” Cindric explained. “We struggle to put down the power, so I’d expect it to almost be like in the trucks, where you’ve got guys that you don’t expect to be running up front and they’re running up front, whether if that’s in the top 10 or the top five, so I feel like from a fan perspective there’s a great possibility for that.
“On the flip side, I think from a racing standpoint everyone is gonna be learning what’s possible and what’s not. Obviously, the durable nature of an Xfinity car I think is gonna give a lot of people some second chances in that race, so unless you hit really hard, you’re not out. I think there’s gonna be plenty of playoff drivers that are gonna have to never give up all race with how aggressive the style of racing is at Martinsville as of late in the Xfinity Series, so hopefully staying out of trouble.”
Allgaier, the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, is eight points above the cutoff line. He’s made four NASCAR Cup Series starts at Martinsville with a best finish of 13th-place in 2015. He’s had only one top-10 finish in the last four races – a 10th place at Kansas two weeks ago. He crashed out last weekend at Texas.
Haley, the driver of the No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet, has made six Truck Series starts at Martinsville with a best finish of sixth in 2018. He brings some good momentum with a win and three top-10 showings in the last four 2020 Playoff races.
Jones, driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, also has three top-10 finishes in the last four races, but his worst showing was just last weekend, a 25th place DNF at Texas. In five Martinsville Speedway Truck starts, he has a best showing of seventh in 2015.
Chastain, who has shined all season, is still looking for his first top-10 of this all-important Playoff round. He was 12th at Kansas and 16th at Texas last week. His work in the Trucks at the half-miler is solid. He has four top-10 finishes in eight Gander Truck starts, including a runner-up showing in last year’s Playoff race. He led 121 laps in two Truck races at Martinsville last season.
Sieg, driver of the No. 39 RSS Racing Chevrolet, has a lot of ground to make up despite an impressive Playoff effort for his small team. He has three top-five finishes in the Playoffs including a runner-up showing at Talladega, Ala. He was third at Kansas to open this round, but finished 31st last week at Texas retiring with mechanical problems. He has one top-10 finish in eight Truck Series races at Martinsville.