With only 1 race left before NASCAR’s Championship 4 is set, drama awaits in Martinsville

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Denny Hamlin (11) makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023 in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There will surely be elaborate permutations to show all the possibilities of what awaits this coming weekend at Martinsville, when six drivers will battle for the final two spots in NASCAR’s Championship 4.

If this guy does this, and this guy does this, or this guy doesn’t do this … the scenarios are endless.

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So, perhaps a simpler mindset, like the one Denny Hamlin has right now, is the way to go.

“Try to win it,” Hamlin said.

That would work, too.

NASCAR’s season has entered its next-to-last week, and good luck figuring out what might happen over the 500 laps around Martinsville’s tight oval this coming weekend. Only two of these six drivers — Hamlin, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chris Buescher — will emerge with a chance to battle Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell in Phoenix on Nov. 5 to win the Cup Series title.

If any of those six win at Martinsville, they'll have a shot at the title. Any other result, break out the calculators.

“It’s nice coming in here as far out as we did and leaving where we’re at,” Blaney said after finishing second at Homestead-Miami on Sunday — moving from seventh in the eight-driver playoff standings to fourth. “Just proud of that effort and we’ve got to go and perform well. Hopefully we can go do it again in Martinsville.”

Larson got his berth in the final by winning at Las Vegas, Bell got his by winning at Homestead. Byron by far is in the best position of the six remaining contenders; he’s 30 points clear of the top-four cutoff going into Martinsville. Blaney is 10 points ahead of fifth.

Everyone else either needs to win — which would be an automatic clinch for Phoenix — or get help. Reddick is fifth, 10 points back of Blaney. Truex and Hamlin are both 17 points back and Buescher is 43 points off the pace.

“I think it’s hard to get in the Final Four. I’ll tell you that,” said Joe Gibbs, the owner of three of the playoff cars — Bell, Truex and Hamlin. “I don’t think anything’s a given … but we do have a chance.”

Bell knows exactly what the six hopefuls will be thinking this week. He won at Martinsville last year to earn his title shot in Phoenix. He got his walk-off win a week earlier this year.

“Your outlook for the race is completely different. ... Those guys have a lot more to race for than what I do now going into Martinsville, so the mentality is completely different for them than it is for me and you just have to be aware of that," Bell said.

Homestead showed, once again, that nobody ever has any idea what’ll happen.

Bell was about to go a lap down and thought his car was one of the slowest in the race at one point Sunday. He was not thinking about winning until the final 10 laps. He was 13th in qualifying, ninth in the first stage, 22nd in the second stage and on top of all that, Homestead is not a track he’s fond of.

And he won. A caution flag in the third stage gave him a chance, and he took full advantage.

“A whirlwind,” Bell said, “for sure.”

Larson’s day at Homestead ended when he tried to evade Blaney entering pit road and instead crashed into the 11 barrels of sand that protect drivers from directly smashing into the wall separating that alley from the track itself. A few tons of dirt went everywhere, and Larson was literally out in a cloud of dust.

“I’m sorry,” Larson — who took the blame for what happened — said into his radio. “I did not expect him to slow down that much.”

Not long afterward, two of the JGR cars experienced their own misfortune. Hamlin’s steering failed and he wound up in the wall, and moments later, something happened to Truex’s engine and smoke came out the back of his car.

Truex started Homestead from the pole, and the day went downhill quickly in what almost seemed to serve as a microcosm of his season. He made little effort to hide his frustration while talking on his radio and wound up finishing 30th. He won three times earlier in 2023, but has one top-10 finish in his last nine starts.

“It shows you how hard our sport is because those were the two cars that for a while for us were up front.” Gibbs said. “And it also shows you that in sports, and particularly in our sport, the 20 (Bell) was an example of just never giving up and just keep fighting.”

Hamlin has had success at Martinsville before. Now under the top-four cut line, he’s going to need some more success there this weekend.

“I try to win every week,” Hamlin said. “Not going to approach it any different. Just going to try to win.”


AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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