Three spots in the championship race at Phoenix remain up for grabs with one race to go.
Kyle Busch stole some of the thunder from the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with his win Wednesday night in Texas. Busch, the reigning series champion, was eliminated in the Round of 12, so his focus has been on a trophy to ensure his streak of winning at least one race a season remains intact.
Martinsville Speedway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBC) is the final race in the Round of 8. Joey Logano is the only driver who knows he’ll be racing for a championship in a little over a week.
Martinsville shapes up nicely from a storyline perspective.
Start with those above the cutline. Kevin Harvick can set a record with his sixth Championship 4 appearance, which would be the most by any driver. Denny Hamlin is looking for his second straight and third overall appearance. And Brad Keselowski is looking for his first return trip to the big dance.
Chevrolet has not had a driver in the Championship 4 since 2016, which is the last time it celebrated a championship. Ironically, it was Jimmie Johnson, who retires after two more races, who was that driver.
Three Chevy drivers are below the cutline going into Martinsville. Two are from Hendrick Motorsports, with Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott both 25 points below the cutline. Both drivers can advance on points, but both know it will be a challenging task.
Bowman finished third at Kansas and fifth in Texas. Overall, he has six top-10 finishes in eight playoff races.
“I view it like we should have run better all year and accumulated more playoff points,” Bowman said of his position. “We’ve run third and fifth the last two weeks and only lost points or stayed about the same. So, it comes down to we needed more playoff points throughout the year. I think last week we were capable of winning and fell a little short. This week, in some different circumstances, we were capable of winning.
“Martinsville has been very hit and miss for me; I feel like we need to go there and win. Obviously, it can happen (on points) — some guys can have some really bad days, but we need to go win. It’s a place where I have some things I feel I have some things to learn, and our short track program has been improving a bunch, but it’s still a little short. But we just needed to run better throughout the year. We did a phenomenal job the last two months — we’ve been as good as anybody the last two months — but those summer months when you need to be accumulating playoff points, we were struggling. Really proud of my team and the race cars they’re bringing right now; it’s just we needed to be doing it all year.”
Bowman has nine playoff points, the second-least of any playoff driver.
Elliott finished sixth at Kansas and 20th at Texas. His team fell off the lead lap in the second stage when Elliott had to return to pit road under green when he felt a tire coming apart.
“For us, we need to go win, and that’s really kind of the bottom line,” said Elliott. “I’m not even going to look at the points because it really just doesn’t matter. If you can’t win races and win them consistently in this series, then you’re not going to win the championship anyway. We need to go there with the mindset of trying to win and put ourselves in the best position to do that, and be comfortable in it, and hope things go our way.”
Neither Bowman nor Elliott has ever advanced into the Championship 4.
Truex is 36 points below the cutline. A spoiler violation found in pre-race inspection Sunday resulted in the loss of 20 points for Truex’s team. His Round of 8 finishes are ninth at Kansas and second at Texas, and he goes to Martinsville having won the two most recent races there.
Truex has a streak on the line going into Martinsville. Truex was in the Championship 4 the last three consecutive seasons and hasn’t finished worse than second in the standings in that time.
“A must-win at any track, no matter how good you’ve been there in the past, I think is a challenge,” said Truex. “The last race there that we ran and delete all the laps we did, whatever, it’s no guarantee. We’ve got to work hard this week to make sure we’re prepared. I know the guys have already been doing that. So definitely optimistic. It’s a good track for us, but it’s a short track, and a lot can happen on restarts and things. We’ll go there and do the best job we can.”
Last on the playoff grid is Kurt Busch, who is in a definite must-win being 81 points below a transfer spot. Busch won at Martinsville in 2014 and will have to pull off an upset as he did in the last round at Las Vegas to advance. His finishes this round were 38th at Kansas and seventh at Texas.
“It’s not one of my best tracks, but the Ganassi cars, since I’ve been driving for them, I’ve been better on my results at Martinsville,” said Busch. “We’ll see how it plays out. We’re going to be elbows out, not afraid to rub, and hopefully, we can be in the right spot.”
Playoff grid after Texas:
Joey Logano: WIN
Kevin Harvick: + 42
Denny Hamlin: + 27
Brad Keselowski: + 25
Alex Bowman: – 25
Chase Elliott: – 25
Martin Truex Jr.: – 36
Kurt Busch: – 81