Blaney wins Martinsville and will race for 1st Cup title in NASCAR’s championship

Ryan Blaney will race for his first Cup championship after qualifying for NASCAR’s title-deciding finale with a Sunday win at Martinsville Speedway.

William Byron, who led the Cup Series with six wins this season, earned the fourth and final slot in the championship by limping to a 13th-place finish. Byron had padded his position with bonus points earned all season and edged Denny Hamlin, who finished third at Martinsville on Sunday, by eight points to qualify for NASCAR's championship.

Blaney and Byron will race Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where the Cup championship will go to the highest-finishing driver.

“I felt like we put together a really strong playoffs, especially the Round of eight,” said Blaney, who didn't finish lower than sixth in the three-race round. “Can’t wait to get to Phoenix next week.”

Larson and Byron gave Hendrick Motorsports a pair of Chevrolets in the final four, Bell is in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Blaney drives a Ford for Team Penske. Blaney can give Team Penske back-to-back titles following Joey Logano's win for Penske last year.

Larson is the only driver in the field with a Cup title and returns to the final four for the second time in three years. Bell is back in the championship for the second consecutive year; Blaney and Byron have never raced for the Cup title.

Byron said his helmet fan stopped working during the race and he dropped to the ground outside his car following the race.

“It's our worst race of the year,” Byron said. “With 50 (laps) to go, I felt really, really bad and I just had to drive the hell out of it. The guys stuck with me and just kept motivating me through, little bits and pieces, and just keeping my mind straight.”

Hamlin was pretty much in a must-win situation Sunday after a mechanical failure last week caused him to crash and dropped him below the cutoff line for elimination at Martinsville. He wasted no time going after the win and led a race-high 156 laps.

“I’m not counting points. I’m doing everything I can to win. Everything,” Hamlin radioed before the final stage.

But Hamlin lost ground after the final round of pit stops — when he and Blaney each took four tires — and he never could work his way back through the traffic to challenge for the win. Hamlin was also eliminated from championship contention at Martinsville last year on a last-lap Hail Mary move by Ross Chastain.

“The mechanical failure last week with the power steering, that sealed our fate,” Hamlin said. “The 12 car (Blaney) was the best car today, so congrats to them. All the final four that made it, it’s going to be great. Hate we’re not in it. It’s racing, right? This is the playoffs. You got a three-race season. The 12 car showed up this round, right? He deserves to be in that final four.”

Blaney won for the third time this season, tying his career high, and led 145 laps. He won twice in the playoffs but his win at the Virginia track was the first for Blaney, who hails from High Point, North Carolina, and considers the short track located 55 miles away his home track.

Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion and pole-sitter Sunday, was eliminated from title contention along with Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing, Chris Buescher of RFK Racing and Hamlin.

Truex finished 12th to cap what has been a terrible playoffs for the Gibbs driver. He was flagged for speeding earlier in the race.

“It’s just a dogfight. I don’t know. We gave it a hell of an effort,” said Truex. “Really disappointed. It’s devastating. That’s racing. We’ve had some bad luck. We’ve had a little bit of everything. Like I said, some years it feels like it’s your year, some years it feels like it’s not. I just feel we couldn’t do anything right."

CHEVROLET WINS MANUFACTURER TITLE

Chevrolet clinched its 42nd manufacturer championship when Sunday's race began at Martinsville.

It marked the third consecutive year the title went to the bowtie brigade in NASCAR's top Cup Series. Chevy already clinched both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series championships this season for its fifth national series sweep — first since 2012 that Chevy claimed all three national titles.

Chevrolet won its first manufacturer Cup championship in 1958 and later recording a streak of 13 consecutive titles between 2003 through 2015. Chevrolet has 850 Cup victories and 33 driver championships in NASCAR’s premier series, making it the winningest automaker in NASCAR's 75-year history.

“This title is the result of great teamwork by the Chevrolet drivers, crew chiefs and teams working tirelessly throughout the season," said Jim Campbell, General Motors U.S. Vice President of Performance and Motorsports.

UP NEXT

The season-ending championship race at Phoenix Raceway, where Larson, Bell, Blaney and Byron will race for the Cup title. The highest finishing driver among the final four claims the championship. Joey Logano won his second title a year ago by winning Phoenix, but has already been eliminated from the playoffs. Byron won in the spring.

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


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