Only 8 drivers remain in the NASCAR Playoffs as the semifinal round begins today at Martinsville Speedway. Four of those drivers represent Stewart-Haas Racing. The remaining 4 drivers represent Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and Furniture Row Racing. The 5 Fords represent the Blue Oval’s best hope to win a Cup Championship in the last 14 years.
That Championship driver in 2004? Kurt Busch(41), who is 3 points below the Top 4’s last spot. Currently held by Chase Elliott(9). Busch is tied with teammate Clint Bowyer(14), and Penske’s Joey Logano(22). The difference in this round of racing? If one of the 8 contenders wins in this round, they automatically advance to the Final at Homestead.
How important is that? Kyle Busch(18) sits 43 points above his brother at the start of this round. Teammate Kevin Harvick(4) sits 42 points above his teammate Kurt. Kyle and Kevin are almost certainly assured of advancing. If so, who gets the 2 spots left. Those are the questions we hope to find some answers to today. Here is how these drivers rank as they begin the Round of 8.
Current Playoff Standings
|3||78||Martin Truex Jr.||4038|
*Ford Fusion Drivers
Big Pre-Race News Announcement
Hendrick Motorsports announced, just prior to the race, that Ally Financial will sponsor the 48 car of Jimmie Johnson in 2019 and 2020. Local sports fans are familiar with Ally and their sponsorship of the PGA Tour Seniors event at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc. The sponsorship agreement is a full-season package for the next 2 years.
The final short track race of the year features Stages of 130 laps for Stage 1 & 2. The Final Stage is 240 laps to the finish. Points leader Kyle Busch sits on the pole. The winner of the Spring race, Clint Bowyer, starts on the front row beside Busch.
Last week’s winner, Chase Elliott, sits on the playoff bubble. He starts 19th today. Martin Truex Jr.(78) starts 33rd after failing pre-race inspection Sunday Morning. Bubba Wallace(43) will also start in the rear of the field after slamming the wall during qualifying and going to a backup car.
Kyle Busch took the lead into Turn 1 on the start and held it for the first 30 laps. Teammate Denny Hamlin(11) moved into the lead briefly, until Jeb Burton(51) spun on Lap 42. After pit stops during the caution, Kyle exited pit road with the lead.
Jimmie Johnson(14) spun on Lap 70. Fortunately, the 7-time Champion avoided damage to his car. The incident brought out the caution again. During this yellow flag, most of the leaders opted to stay on the track.
Once back in the lead Kyle Busch began to pull away from everyone except Hamlin. When the leaders caught lapped traffic racing for position, Hamlin was able to get around Busch and take the lead coming to the end of Stage 1. Logano slipped into second and picked up valuable Stage points.
Stage 1 Results
* Ford Fusion Drivers
Logano took the lead on the restart. He too was able to stretch the lead in clean air. All the playoff drivers raced in the top 10 at the beginning of Stage 2. Only Hamlin and Ryan Newman(31) held a position among the leaders during the early portion of the Stage.
By taking care of his tires and no cautions during the Stage, Logano held onto the lead. Despite a late change by Hamlin, Logano was able to win the Stage. Plus take the 10 Stage points and 1 Playoff point for the Stage win. The long green flag run also allowed Logano to lap all but 14 cars. Including Harvick, although the #4 car got the lap back as the lucky dog when the yellow flew at the end of the Stage.
Stage 2 Results
* Ford Fusion Drivers
The Final Stage
As everyone pitted during the Stage ending caution, crew chiefs informed their drivers there was rain in the area. Logano and Hamlin exited the pits 1st and 2nd. With rain possibly 30 minutes out, the intensity is going to pick up. On the restart, Logano jumped out to a big lead.
Logano’s Ford loves clean air. Out front, he is the fastest car in the field. Once his car gets in lapped traffic other drivers can close on him. Truex Jr. battled all-day to gain track position from his 33rd place starting position. On lap 360, Truex pushed his way past Logano to take the lead.
As the leaders approached green flag pitstops, William Byron(24) spun bringing out the caution. With 365 laps in the books, a full tank of fuel and fresh tires will last the 135 laps to the finish. Coming out of the pits it was Truex Jr. holding onto the lead. He was followed by Logano, Hamlin, Almirola, and Kyle Busch.
Truex Jr. maintained the lead on the restart. But, Logano passed him quickly racing in the clean air at the front of the pack. Just after going back to green Timmy Hill(66)’s car caught fire under the hood. Possibly a front brake failure. Hill pulled his car to pit road and quickly exited the cockpit as fire crews address the flames. Another caution, another restart.
Again, just after the restart, Kyle Larson(42)’s engine expired. The cleanup of the fluid took some time and brought the laps remaining under 100.
86 Laps to Go
After the Larson caution, the race restarted with 86 laps to go. Logano powered off into turn 1 holding onto the lead. Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski(2), restarted in 3rd and followed Logano past Truex Jr. With Penske cars running 1st and 2nd, you might have expected to see them line up and drive away. No way. Keselowski fought side-by-side until he forced his way past with 81 laps to go.
With 44 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson tried to make it 3 wide into a corner and spun Bowyer. The caution came out and Bowyer went a lap down. Everyone opted to pit for fresh tires. The race off pit road went to Logano. Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, and Truex Jr. followed.
Logano jumped to the lead and Kyle Busch was able to outrace Keselowski to Turn 1. Busch dropped to the lower lane and started to put pressure on Logano. But, Keselowski put a bumper to Kyle and their race for second allowed Logano to get away. Truex Jr. then passed Busch and set his sights on the two Fords out front.
Keselowski hounded Logano for several laps. Teammates fighting each other for the win. Logano prevailed but battle allowed Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch to close up and make it a 4 car race to the finish. Truex Jr. passed Keselowski allowing Logano a brief surge ahead.
Over the final 10 laps, it was the Logano and Truex Jr. show. Truex closed to his bumper, then they were door handle-to-door handle. Logano fought hard to stay out front. Truex took the lead coming to the white flag. Logano closed to his bumper down the backstretch. A bump in Turn 4 and they were side-by-side again.
Logano banged into Truex coming to the line. The checkered flag was waving in the air. Both cars got squirely. Hamlin was making a late charge from 3rd. Logano slid under the checkered flag for the win. Hamlin just nipped Truex for 2nd. One of the most spectacular finishes in Martinsville Speedway history.
The win secures Logano and Ford Performance a spot in the Finals at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After just 1 race the playoff chances of each driver look pretty clear. Kyle Busch, Truex Jr., and Harvick look good with at least a 25 point cushion. Barring a disaster the points battle is set. Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, and Aric Almirola need a win to advance. A win by any one of the playoff contenders, except Logano, narrows the point advancement opportunities.
|Position||Car||Driver||Points vs Cut Line|
|1||22||Joey Logano*||In With Win|
|3||78||Martin Truex Jr.||+25|
*Ford Fusion Drivers
Next week at Texas, expect the mayhem to continue. As 7 of the eight remaining playoff contenders fight for the win and the automatic bid to the final that goes with it. Truex payback? As Martin said: “What goes around comes around.” Two to go to the Final and then one race for it all. Stay tuned!
Results of the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway
|3||78||Martin Truex Jr.||0.221||500|
|19||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||15.563||500|
|40||7||Hermie Sadler III||-270||230|
Playoff Drivers, Advanced to the Finals