Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: A Martinsville Playoff Menagerie

Quite the cast of characters we’ve got as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway for the penultimate race of the 2022 season, isn’t it?

Joey Logano is the only driver locked in for the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Three spots remain, with seven drivers duking it out for those berths this weekend at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped short track in Virginia.

Pretty straightforward, right? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve cited horror movies a lot this month, so I won’t bore you with 15 more references … just one more. I revisited one of my all-time favorites, John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing, last night, and my tweet from earlier in the month about Talladega Superspeedway is pretty much applicable here, too.

Kurt Russell’s words ring true, whether describing an Antarctic encampment with an alien being slowly taking over crew members and establishing paranoia or whether referring to eight drivers who’ve driven in 34 points-paying races this season, replete with crashes, mechanical failures, close calls and moments of triumph. They’re exhausted, they only trust themselves and their crews and they’ll do whatever is necessary to advance to Phoenix Raceway’s title race.

If anything is straightforward for this race, it’s the point of this article, and that’s to give a rundown of how the points stack up heading to the Commonwealth and how this octet of contenders might fare. Maybe someone will channel the severely underrated As Above, So Below and essentially carve their way to the victory by making the race how they want it to be.

Joey Logano

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: Doesn’t matter. Logano has already secured a spot in the Championship 4.

Logano has nothing to worry about heading into this weekend, except for chasing a trophy and furthering the No. 22 team’s momentum heading west to the desert.

That said, this is absolutely a weekend in which the Team Penske stable is going to want to hang back, ride around and possibly go for the win if the opportunity arises, but they’ll do all this while making sure they don’t piss off anyone in the process. Even if Logano and co. can’t get to Phoenix with a win directly in the rearview mirror, better to let the win slip away than put a target on their backs for the finale.

Whereas feuds between other drivers below might crop up amongst them, let’s not forget that Logano’s had issues with drivers in the past. That all seems (mostly) behind him, so expect the No. 22 to be quiet and make zero noise whatsoever (you know, outside of the normal noises these machines make while racing).

Ross Chastain

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: Four top-10 finishes in eight NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races; best finish of second (fall 2019)

I’ll posit a similar claim to the one I made last week about Ross Chastain and the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Team stable: they’ve been one of the most quietly impressive playoff teams in recent memory.

In the first half of the season, it seemed like all Chastain did was put a target on his back. He made drivers from all over the East Coast mad: Denny Hamlin (Virginia), Chase Elliott (Georgia) and Martin Truex Jr. (New Jersey) all had various issues with the Floridian melon man.

And yet … the No. 1 might be the team to beat come Phoenix. Remember how well it ran there in the spring?

Chastain sits second in points, 19 over the cut line, and has finished second in two straight races. More importantly, he’s ascended this far into the playoffs via a wildly impressive 2022 season that features 19 top 10s, which is tied for the most in all of NASCAR with Elliott. That’s damn impressive.

Chase Elliott

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: One Cup win, 903 laps led

Elliott, who came up so clutch back in 2020 when he needed to at Martinsville, now sits less than 100 circuits away from leading 1,000 laps at the short track.

He also enters this race not in the best of spots. Double-digit points over the cut line (11) is a good place to be, but we all know short tracks: a spinout there, some damage that sends you to pit road there, any sort of misfortune at all and you lose spots and — worse — laps.

Outside of his win at Talladega, four of the past five races have featured Elliott finishing 14th or worse, three of those 20th or lower. It hasn’t been a good stretch for him, but playoff points throughout the season have helped somewhat carry the ailing No. 9 team to this point.

As for Martinsville, he does indeed have that win and 903 laps led, 185 of those in the spring when he and a certain teammate to be named later dominated. Last year, a late spin after nearly 300 laps out front derailed his shot at a win (not that it mattered; he made the Championship 4 anyway), but Elliott isn’t exactly headed to Virginia with the most momentum in terms of points, recent races overall or recent races at this specific track.

William Byron

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: One Cup win, 212 laps led in the spring 2022 event

Now here’s a guy … who I just alluded to five seconds ago and who also flat-out dominated the latter half of the spring 2022 race at the short track. William Byron also had a late restart to deal with, where he held off the field en route to one of his two wins so far this year.

That said, Byron has had a weird season and it’s interesting to look at how he’s made it this far: the No. 24 team has all of nine top 10s and just five top fives all year long. A whopping 17 drivers have more top 10s than Byron this year, including two drivers that missed the playoffs entirely (Truex and Michael McDowell).

The No. 24 squad have truly gone through a cold spell of late too, finishing 12th or worse in each of the past four races. Though I doubt previous beef with Logano at Darlington in May will come up the rest of this season, that team has not looked the same since they reeled off two wins in the first eight races and then went seven more without a top-10 effort.

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Denny Hamlin

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: Five Cup wins, 22 top-10 finishes in 33 starts

Hamlin’s led too many laps to count at Martinsville, a statistical category that includes three performances of 200 or more circuits out front. This is one of the Virginia native’s home tracks, a place he’s won at five times (though not since 2015) and a place where he decided to interfere with Alex Bowman‘s burnout last fall on Halloween.

Heading to his home state, Hamlin has put together a very impressive past nearly two months: since Darlington at the start of September, Hamlin has seven top-10 finishes in eight races and no result worse than 13th. He might not be winning as often as he has before, but that No. 11 team has been (ironically) like Chastain to close the year: quietly consistent when needed.

Hamlin might be running around 17th or so midway through the race, but as we’ve seen so often these playoffs, he’s found a way to jump into the mix when the checkered flag is on the horizon.

Ryan Blaney

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: 377 laps led, seven top-10 finishes in 13 starts

Though Ryan Blaney has never won at the Paperclip, he’s been a consistent threat through the years: he’s led laps numbering in the triple digits twice and was in command of the spring 2021 race for quite some time.

That said, Blaney and the No. 12 crew have had a weird year in which they’ve scored 15 top 10s yet still sit without a race win, one of the more surprisingly winless wheelmen as the season winds down. And yet they’re in the Round of 8, not in a must-win situation for an elimination race and have previously performed well at a track at which they need to do just that.

It’s weird in the sense that Blaney closed out 2021 incredibly strong, with back-t0-back wins to end the regular season and a Round of 8 berth as well, and the Next Gen car seemed to destroy any momentum they might’ve had for 2022. But that Ford stable has done most of what it needs to do to put itself in a spot, though a potential win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and solid run at Homestead-Miami Speedway were ruined by late mistakes.

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Christopher Bell

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: Three top-10 Truck finishes in four starts; best Cup finish of seventh (spring 2021)

Though Christopher Bell scored points in a couple stages in the spring of this year, that doesn’t do much to improve his history at Martinsville: very little to write home about outside of a seventh-place effort in the spring of 2021.

And, despite the fact that Bell pulled off a shock win at the Charlotte ROVAL a few weeks back to climb out of a seemingly already filled grave and secure a spot in the Round of 8, that No. 20 might need more than that — some divine intervention, maybe — to grab a Championship 4 berth.

Chase Briscoe

  • Notable stats at Martinsville: One top 10 in both Cup and Xfinity Series competition

Chase Briscoe did finish ninth back in the spring, but that pales in comparison to what the No. 14 crew needs to do right now. They’re 44 points below the cut line after misfortune at Homestead-Miami and have to win in order to advance to the final round.

Advancing to the final round would be confidence boosters twofold; besides a clutch win, Briscoe scored his maiden triumph in a Cup machine at Phoenix back in the spring.

But it’s going to take a lot this weekend for that to actually have a possibility of happening.

Predicted Martinsville winner: Truex

Predicted Championship 4: Logano, Chastain, Elliott, Hamlin

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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