Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – Certainly this is one of the most interesting and diverse Round of 8 driver lineups in recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history with four former series champions, a championship runner-up and three of the hottest young talents in the sport still contending for the 2019 trophy.
Regular season champion Kyle Busch heads into Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a mere four-point edge on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. – the slimmest advantage Busch has had to start a Playoff round this season.
Their JGR teammate Denny Hamlin is nine points behind Busch and is the series’ most recent winner, collecting his fifth trophy last Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Team Penske’s Joey Logano – the defending series champion – is fourth, 16 points behind Busch in the standings lead.
The remaining drivers hoping to race their way into the final round of the Playoffs for a ticket to compete for the series championship on Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway include 2014 series champ Kevin Harvick and three of the brightest new stars in NASCAR – Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney. Harvick is 18 points behind Logano in that crucial fourth place position. Elliott is 22 back, Larson, 35 back and Blaney 37 points from the cutoff.
Hamlin has earned more than double the number of wins as anyone else in the Playoff field at Martinsville with five victories including three consecutively from 2010-’11. Busch has two Cup wins at the track and is the only other Playoff driver with multiple wins there. Logano and Harvick have won a race apiece. The other four drivers – including the 2017 Cup champion Truex have not won a Cup race at Martinsville.
All three of the youngest contenders have Playoff experience prior to this season. Elliott, Blaney and Larson have advanced to this penultimate title round before (in 2017). Elliott finished a career-best fifth in the Playoff standings in 2017. Larson was eighth that year and Blaney was ninth.
Elliott, 23, doesn’t have a Cup win at Martinsville, but he did earn one of his two career Gander Outdoors Truck Series victories there in 2017. Elliott has 11 top-10 finishes in 25 Cup short track races and his Hendrick Motorsports team is the winningest (24 victories) in Martinsville history.
And for good measure – Elliott does have one heckuva Hendrick Motorsports teammate to lean on at the notoriously tough venue. Jimmie Johnson has nine wins at the track – most among active drivers.
Larson, 27, who earned his spot in the Round of 8 with a victory at Dover, Del. three weeks ago, has 12 top-10 finishes on short tracks including a runner-up at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2018 and a third-place in the Spring, 2016 Martinsville race. Blaney, 25, who won at Talladega two weeks ago, has six top-10 finishes at short tracks including a best of third-place at Martinsville in Spring, 2018.
“Martinsville has been hit-or-miss for us,” said Elliott, who drives the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “We ran good there in the Spring, ran bad there last Fall. I feel like we have really good runs there and bad runs there. I haven’t really done anything different; we just need to really do our homework this week and just really focus on it.”
And that’s essentially the competitive mode for all of Elliott’s competition as well.
In the last 10 races, Hamlin (2015), Kyle Busch (2016 and 2017) and Logano (defending race winner) are the only current Playoff drivers with victories at Martinsville.
Busch was the 2019 season’s first four-time winner, but he hasn’t raised a trophy in 18 races – dating back to the first summer stop in Pocono, Pa. Logano has won twice, but not since the first Michigan summer race 17 races ago.
Hamlin has been the most consistent of the multi-winners this season. He won the season-opening Daytona 500 and the most recent race at Kansas with victories at Texas in April, Pocono in August and Bristol, Tenn. in September in between. His 17 top-five finishes are a career-best for the 38-year old whose birthday is the day after the Miami finale.
Consistency and leadership from a now veteran Hamlin have kept this No. 11 JGR Toyota team feeling and acting like the championship favorites – particularly coming into this round’s three-race stretch. Only Busch, Hamlin, Logano and Harvick have won at all three tracks – at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix – that will settle the list of championship contenders.
“Now we’re dialed in and focused on Martinsville and the Round of 8,” Hamlin said. “Martinsville is going to be very pivotal. We’ve always seen great battles there. I feel like it’s the greatest race in the Playoffs other than Homestead.”
GANDER TRUCKS RETURN TO THE PAPERCLIP
With the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs in full swing, many expect this weekend’s intense short track battle at Martinsville Speedway to be an especially compelling race with huge championship implications.
Only one of the current six Playoff drivers has a previous Martinsville victory. Two-time series champion Matt Crafton won on the track in Spring, 2014 and Fall, 2015. That 2014 win came the same season that Crafton earned his second consecutive Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship.
One of his biggest competitors in Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the reigning champion, Brett Moffitt, who is hoping to duplicate Crafton’s 2013-14 championships and become only the second driver to ever win back-to-back titles.
Moffitt holds a 23-point edge on Canadian driver Stewart Friesen in second, who is looking for his first series title. Austin Hill is third in the standings, 33 points behind Moffitt and Crafton is fourth, 44 points back. Fifth place Tyler Ankrum is only a single point behind Crafton and sixth place Ross Chastain is two points behind Crafton making this a tightly-bunched group of Playoff contenders.
Only the top four drivers in the Playoff standings at the conclusion of this round will have the opportunity to race for the championship trophy on Nov. 15 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Crafton’s ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter is a four-time race Martinsville winner and is the defending winner of this Fall race. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch won on the Martinsville half-miler this Spring.
As for the six still in title contention, Moffitt has never finished worse than sixth in four starts at the half-mile track. He was runner-up to Sauter in this race last year. Friesen has five starts at Martinsville and his best effort came just this Spring when he won the pole position and finished fifth. Hill, has a pair of top-10 finishes in eight starts. His best is a ninth place in March, 2018.
Crafton boasts the best resume at Martinsville. In addition to his two victories, he has nine top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 35 series starts.
Of the remaining two drivers still championship eligible and so very close to breaking into that top four – Chastain has the best finish – a fourth place this Spring. He’s had three top 10s in seven career truck starts at Martinsville. The 18-year old Ankrum has only two starts at the track with a best showing of 18th in last year’s Playoff race.