Why NASCAR’s Round of 8 Could Mean Mayhem at Martinsville

Many people within the NASCAR community think the man (or woman) who decided that Martinsville Speedway should be the place to set the Championship 4 fields is a pure-bred genius.

Others think that same man (or woman) is a full-blown idiot.

The truth, as it often does, rests somewhere between those extremes.

Saturday afternoon’s Camping World 200, Saturday night’s Xfinity 250, and Sunday afternoon’s Cup 500 at the Virginia bullring will determine which four drivers will race for championships next weekend at Phoenix Raceway. This weekend’s Camping World race is Saturday at 2 p.m., the Xfinity race is at 6 p.m. that night, and the Cup race is at 2 p.m. the next afternoon.

Only one of the 24 drivers still eligible to advance to next weekend’s Championship 4 will have no serious worries when he walks into the flat, paper clip-shaped, 75-year-old, half-mile track Sunday morning.

By winning at Fort Worth and Kansas City the past two weekends, Hendrick Motorsports star Kyle Larson is already assured of racing for the Cup championship on November 7. The other seven drivers looking to advance are reigning champion Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, former two-time champion Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, and former one-time champions Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano.

Larson and Elliott race Chevrolet Camaros for Hendrick Motorsports. Hamlin, Busch, and Truex Jr. are in Toyota Camrys for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Blaney, Keselowski, and Logano are in Ford Mustangs for Team Penske. Among that group, only Larson and Blaney have never won at Martinsville. With five victories there, Hamlin leads the group, followed by three-time winner (including this spring) Truex Jr., two-time winners Keselowski and Busch, and one-timers Elliott and Logano.

A victory on Sunday by a Playoff driver other than Larson will send that winner to next weekend’s Championship. If Larson or a non-Playoff driver wins, Elliott and Hamlin stand the best chance of advancing by points; Elliott is 34 above the four-driver cut line and Hamlin is safely in by 32 points. Busch is one point over the line … comfortable by no means.

Blaney is one point below the line, Truex Jr. is three below and Keselowski is six below. They’re capable of racing their way into the top-4, although it’s a stretch to think they would displace both Elliott and Hamlin. And it’s also a stretch to think Logano would move from 26 below the line to one point above it, leaping Blaney, Truex Jr., and Keselowski to get there. Logano was spot-on with his assessment last weekend. “We’re pretty much in a must-win situation,” he said in Kansas. “It’s pretty far-fetched, but maybe it can happen.”

The Points

Top four drivers in the standings after Sunday’s race at Martinsville qualify for the Championship 4 at Phoenix.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

All eight Xfinity Series championship contenders remain eligible for next weekend’s finale in Phoenix. Two of them have huge points leads and two others are deep below the cut line, leaving four drivers realistically scrapping for two spots in the Dead On Tools 250.

Defending series champion Austin Cindric and A.J. Allmendinger are tied atop the standings, each 47 points above the cut line. They seem fairly safe, so they’re in barring huge upsets. But Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric can’t help but be concerned: Allgaier is nine points to the good and Daniel Hemric is seven above the line.

Justin Haley is a manageable seven points below the line, but Noah Gragson trails by 24, close to an insurmountable deficit. Practically without hope are Brandon Jones (40 points below the line) and Harrison Burton (51 below the line). Ironically, Burton won at Martinsville last fall, making him the only championship contender with one of the speedway’s coveted grandfather clock trophies. His father, Jeff (in 1990) and his uncle, Ward, in 1993) have also won there.

Cindric, a five-time winner this year, drives a Ford Mustang for Team Penske. Allmendinger, also a five-time winner, drives a Chevrolet Camaro for Kaulig Racing, as does one-time winner Haley. Allgaier and Gragson, each with two victories, drive Chevrolet Camaro for JR Motorsports. Joe Gibbs Racing has three Toyota Camrys in the final eight: winless Hemric, Jones, and Burton.

The Points

Top four drivers in the standings after Sunday’s race at Martinsville qualify for the Championship 4 at Phoenix.

Camping World Truck Series

Similarly, all eight Camping World Truck Series championship hopefuls remain eligible for next weekend’s Championship 4. Non-Playoff drivers Christian Eckes and Tate Fogleman won the first two races in Round 3, leaving the field wide open in Saturday afternoon’s United Rentals 200.

Five-time winner John Hunter Nemechek has a 36-point advantage and two-time winner Ben Rhodes has a 35-point lead over the cut line. That’s fairly safe unless something unimaginable happens. Winless Matt Crafton, a three-time series champion, is 10 points above the line and three-time winner and defending CWTS champion Sheldon Creed is five to the good.

Only one driver in the lower half of the field can be somewhat optimistic. Stewart Friesen is just five below the cut line, a manageable deficit. But one-time winner Chandler Smith at minus-34 points, winless Carson Hocevar at minus-37, and winless Zach Smith at minus-40 have almost no chance to advance without winning.

Nemechek and Chandler Smith race Toyotas for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Rhodes and Crafton are in Toyotas for ThorSport and Friesen drives a Toyota for Halmar Friesen Racing. Creed and Zane Smith are in Chevrolets for Maury Gallagher, and Hocevar is in a Chevy for Niece Motorsports. Only Crafton (twice) and Nemechek (once) have won at Martinsville.

The championship-deciding Camping World race is next Friday on the 1-mile track near Phoenix. It will be followed on Saturday by the Xfinity championship race and on Sunday by the Cup Series championship race.

The Points

California Dreamin’

And BTW: next year’s NASCAR season will begin on Sunday, February 6 with the limited-field Coliseum Clash exhibition race on the quarter-mile track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The 2022 Daytona 500 will be two weeks later, on Sunday, February 20.

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