No matter how many twists and turns the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs seem to take, we always end up here.
Same place, same time of year with the typical players above the cutline. The four others, the outsiders, needing to deliver a knockout punch in the final round. There are no surprises when it comes to the positioning of the eight drivers left on the playoff grid going into the Xfinity 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBC). Those who are surprised haven’t been paying close attention, which OK, a lot is going in life these days, so you get a pass.
But to reiterate, this is where we were always going to end up. The drivers and teams who have been at the top of the heap all season only need to show up one more time to solidify their status as championship contenders.
Joey Logano is locked in for the fourth time in his career. He ended the regular season fifth in the overall standings.
Kevin Harvick has one foot in the Championship 4. He won the regular-season championship and leads the series with nine wins. These first few rounds of the playoffs have been a formality for Harvick and company.
Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have breathing room on the cutline with their point gaps of plus 27 and 25, respectively. Both can control their own destinies at Martinsville Speedway by performing as they have all season. Hamlin finished the regular season second in the standings; Keselowski was third.
Between the four of them, they accounted for 18 race wins in the first 26 races. In the playoffs, they’ve won five of the eight races. Who did you think was going to be one race away from competing for the championship?
“Those are very familiar faces to the final four, and that’s not by happenstance,” said Chase Elliott. “They’re obviously very good, and they’ve asserted themselves as the top drivers and teams over the course of the last number of years, especially since this points format has been implemented. Hopefully, we can change that course this weekend.”
Feel like Martin Truex Jr. should be up there? Truex made the Championship 4 in 2015 and then the ’17, ’18, and ’19 seasons. Granted, he did finish the regular season fourth in the standings, but consistency was only going to carry this team so far. The playoffs are about wins and playoff points, which Truex severely lacks.
Entering the postseason, Harvick carried 42 playoff points to Hamlin’s 37, Keselowski’s 21, and Logano’s 16. Truex, meanwhile, had seven. In other words, he had no insurance policy or something to help his cause despite two top-10 finishes in the first two races of this round. A 20-point penalty for a spoiler violation doesn’t help, either.
All of this isn’t to say we should just skip 500 laps at the Virginia paperclip and head straight out west to Phoenix. There are four drivers in Alex Bowman, Elliott, Truex, and Kurt Busch who want one more chance to pull off an upset win and advance into the title race. Any athlete will tell you it is not over until there is no time left on the clock.
The wide margin in the point gaps eliminates the likelihood of a points battle Sunday afternoon. That’s good news for those who aren’t fans of points racing. And four drivers below the cutline are in must-win mode anyway, and they won’t be counting on the misfortune for those ahead of them.
Martinsville is the perfect place to end the penultimate round of the playoffs. A classic tough old short track, Martinsville has produced some of the most memorable moments in playoff history.
“I think it’s a great place for it,” Elliott said. “Who knows how the race will shape up. A lot of circumstances kind of led to some of those big moments and the timely cautions and things of that nature, so who knows?
“I certainly couldn’t tell you whether it’ll be fireworks or not, but my goal is to be fast enough where you don’t allow fireworks. And that’s the best way to deal with that.”
Matt Kenseth, already eliminated from championship contention, intentionally wrecked Logano in 2015. Logano was the race leader and lapping Kenseth, who had been damaged earlier in the day, and with whom he’d had previous run-ins during the postseason. Logano didn’t advance to the title race.
In that same race, Jeff Gordon capitalized to score the win. It was Gordon’s final win in the Cup Series in his final full season. Gordon hadn’t run tremendously well that year, but got one last moment in the sun.
Jimmie Johnson won at Martinsville the following year. The win propelled him into the title race and toward his seventh and final championship.
In 2017, Hamlin spun Elliott from the race lead just laps from the finish. A fan tried to fight Hamlin on pit road afterward. In 2018, Logano put the bumper to Truex for the lead and the win. Truex took exception to the move, as did the crowd with their overwhelming boos, and although Truex vowed Logano wouldn’t “win the damn war,” and he wasn’t going to let Logano win the championship, Logano did.
Last year, Hamlin squeezed Logano into the wall off Turn 4. On pit road after the checkered flag, the two exchanged words and a few shoves before it escalated into a mosh pit of Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing crew members.
Each of those previous Martinsville incidents came with the track being the first race in the Round of 8. Now it is the make-or-break race for a driver’s season.
“I think it’s definitely going to ramp things up a bit, especially you come down to the end guys in the situation like I’m in, it has the potential to get pretty crazy,” said Truex. “It’s really hard to prepare for those things. You just got to go race and live in the moment and try to make the best decisions possible and do whatever it takes to get to where you want to go. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to X or Y, or I’m going to run over this person or that person because that’s not the way I do things.
“It’s funny; I think I hear more people give me a hard time for complaining about lap cars not giving way to the leaders when they’re racing for a win than I do about how I race people. It’s kind of silly. I’m just going to go race and do my thing, and hopefully, we’ll be in a position to win the thing.”
Whether it comes down to disagreements on the track or a driver pulling a walk-off win (Truex has won the last two races at Martinsville), there are possibilities for an entertaining showdown, even if it’s with the same people involved.
“We’re going to be elbows out, not afraid to rub,” said Kurt Busch, “and hopefully, we can be in the right spot.”