Drivers Racing For Their Playoff Lives At Martinsville

Martinsville Speedway will determine the final three drivers who will race for the NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Martinsville Speedway will determine the final three drivers who will race for the NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — For three drivers, Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway will be the next step toward a possible NASCAR Cup Series championship.

However, for four other drivers, the conclusion of Sunday’s race will mean the end of their chances to claim this year’s Cup Series title.

Entering the Xfinity 500 only one driver, Joey Logano, has a guaranteed place in the Nov. 8 championship race at Phoenix Raceway. The other three positions will be filled at the conclusion of Sunday’s race, with Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski currently in position to advance to the championship finale via points.

That leaves Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch on the outside looking in.

Bowman and Elliott trail Keselowski by 25 points heading to Martinsville. It’s possible each could earn enough points during the Xfinity 500 to advance to Phoenix, but a victory by either one would make things considerably easier.

“To be really honest with you, I feel good,” said Elliott, a winner of three races this year. “I feel probably better than I ever have and as relaxed as I ever have. Coming into that last opportunity, that last chance Sunday as I’ve called it the last couple of years, I’m looking forward to it. I think the more that you can embrace that moment and embrace that situation and really enjoy that time, the better you’ll be prepared for a Final Four one day if you ever get there. So, that’s kind of the way I feel about it and am really just excited to have the opportunity and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Bowman, who hasn’t won since March, said regardless of the outcome on Sunday he’s proud of the progress he and his Hendrick Motorsports team have made in the last 10 races.

“I feel like we’ve built a lot of confidence as a race team throughout the last two months or so,” Bowman said. “Whether we transfer to the round of four or not, I feel like we have a lot to be proud of over the last 10 races or so. We really should have all top-10s through the playoffs so far, just Bristol we had a tire issue and Talladega we got caught up in a crash.

“I think (about) how much we’ve overcome this year as a race team and how strong we’ve been here at the end of the year, we have a lot to be proud of and we can continue to carry that momentum into next year regardless of if we make the final round or not.”

Truex, the winner at Martinsville Speedway on June 10, effectively finds himself in a must-win situation entering Sunday’s race. He’s 36 points behind Keselowski and though there is a chance he can make his way into the championship race via points, it’s more likely he’ll have to win the Xfinity 500 to earn his place in the championship round.

The 2017 Cup Series champion believes returning to Martinsville as the most recent winner at the half-mile track is a confidence booster for he and his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

“It definitely gives us confidence. Any time we are going into a track where we have had past success, it’s good,” Truex said. “We’ve got notes to work off of from the spring race. It’s been good to us lately, but anything can happen at a short track. Just trying to be as prepared as we can, I think. The guys are ready and we are going to do the best job we can and hopefully continue the success we have had there.”

That leaves Busch, who truly is in a must-win situation, trailing Keselowski by 81 points.
However, Busch has enjoyed success at Martinsville in the past. He’s earned two of his 32 career victories there, with his most recent coming in 2014. If he can find victory lane for a third time at Martinsville, he’ll earn the right to race for his second NASCAR Cup Series title.

“You look at it as a wild card. That’s how I see it,” Busch said of Martinsville. “We’ve had the race at the ROVAL as a cutoff, we’ve had Talladega in years past as a restrictor-plate, wild card, cutoff race. And, so Martinsville is a track where you’re going to see all the front-runners running up front. Some are going to gamble on tires and have to race with elbows out and to move guys out of the way. And heck, you could be running third and the leaders take each other out and you get an invite to the championship round. There are going to be so many variables and so many wide-open chances for Martinsville.”