Despite Playoff deficits, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin approach Martinsville race with optimism

Joe Gibbs Racing has a math problem as the NASCAR Cup Series heads for Martinsville Speedway and Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The Round of 8 elimination race will complete the field of four drivers who will compete for the series title the following Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. JGR already has one driver in the Championship 4—Christopher Bell, who advanced with last week’s victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bell joined Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, who won at Las Vegas to earn his spot in the title race—narrowly beating Bell to the finish line.

If Homestead was pivotal to Bell’s advancement, it was misery for JGR teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. Hamlin rocketed into the outside wall and out of the race when his steering broke on Lap 236 of 267.

A lap later, the engine failed in Truex’s No. 19 Toyota. Truex and Hamlin finished 29th and 30th, respectively, and each driver enters Sunday’s event at Martinsville 17 points behind fourth-place Ryan Blaney in the battle for the final berth in the Championship 4.

The two JGR drivers trail third-place William Byron by 37 points. Barring catastrophe, Byron is likely to earn a place in the title race on points. Realistically, that leaves one spot available for Hamlin, Truex, Blaney, Tyler Reddick (10 points behind Blaney) or Chris Buescher (needing a win to advance).

To state the obvious, any one of those drivers can secure a spot in the Championship 4 by winning at Martinsville, but only one driver can win. Hence, it’s feasible for either Hamlin or Truex to advance but extremely unlikely that both will.

Nevertheless, both drivers enter the race with confidence, despite the issue with the Playoff math.

“We’re going to my best track,” said Hamlin, who has five victories at the 0.526-mile short track, most among active drivers. “We’ve been behind the eight ball before. I feel like we show up in these situations and put our best effort forward.

“I certainly feel like there is heavy motivation this week. We know what we’re capable of. Now, we just have to go do it.”

Hamlin hasn’t won at the track since 2015, but he was fifth and fourth in his last two starts there.

Truex, the Regular Season Champion, posted victories in three of the last eight Martinsville races, his last coming in 2021. In the 2022 debut season of NASCAR’s Next Gen race car, however, he struggled at the track, finishing 22nd and 20th in the two races.

But this season brought improved performance. Truex ran third in the April 16 race at the paper-clip-shaped speedway.

“I’m really optimistic going into this weekend because we ran third there in the spring,” Truex acknowledged. “Martinsville looks so easy—it’s just a small, little half-mile track, but it’s so tricky with the concrete in the corners, and every time you go there, it’s different.

“It doesn’t make sense because the track is the same, but it does make it different depending on the temperature and the tire and everything that’s going on with these cars. Running third there in the spring, I think we learned a lot we can use going forward and, hopefully, we can find some of that old magic we had there a few years ago again this weekend.”

 

Tight race for final Championship 4 spots in NASCAR Xfinity Series

The battle for the final two NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 berths couldn’t be much closer.

Three bubble drivers—Cole Custer, Austin Hill and Justin Allgaier—are covered by a three-point spread entering Saturday’s Round of 8 elimination race, and if form holds, they’ll be fighting for the final two berths in the Nov. 4 title race at Phoenix Raceway.

Custer and Hill, the Regular Season Champion, are third and fourth in the Playoff standings, both three points ahead of Allgaier.

The rest of the Playoff scenario is clear-cut. Sam Mayer qualified for the Championship 4 with a victory last Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his fourth win of the year and the first of his career on an oval track.

John Hunter Nemechek leads fifth-place Allgaier by 44 points and can clinch a spot in the championship event by scoring 12 points on Saturday—no matter who wins the race. That translates to a 25th-place finish if Nemechek scores no stage points.

Hence, if the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota can avoid an early disaster, he’s all but guaranteed a spot in the final four. Nemechek won the spring race in his only Xfinity Series start at the 0.526-mile short track.

For practical purposes, the bottom three in the standings—Sammy Smith, Chandler Smith and Sheldon Creed—must win at Martinsville to advance.

In all likelihood, that leaves the three drivers huddled around the cut line to battle for two Championship 4 spots.

Allgaier, who has five top-10 finishes in six Martinsville starts, finished third in last year’s final standings. He expects to run well on Saturday as he tries to continue the quest for his first series title.

“Martinsville has been a strong track for us since its return to the schedule (in 2020), and I know we will be just as quick again this weekend,” said Allgaier, who has finished seventh or better in the Xfinity standings in his last 12 full-time seasons.

“We just need to be smart all day long and keep the fenders on our JR Motorsports Camaro. If we can do that, then I feel extremely confident that we will accomplish what we’ve set out to do.”