Who… should you be talking about after the race?
When William Byron opened up a solid lead on the final restart of the day, it looked like the race was over with inside 25 laps to go. But Christopher Bell worked his way to second after a battle with Ryan Blaney and set sail for Byron, catching him and making the winning pass with 15 to go to take the 4EVER 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Blaney also got by the fading Byron and made a run at Bell, but ultimately fell short by 1.6 seconds as Bell punched his ticket to the title race in two weeks’ time.
Bell hadn’t been happy with his No. 20 Toyota in the early going, but his team got it right when they needed to as his playoff teammates stumbled. Bell makes the title race for the second straight year; he finished third in points in 2022.
And don’t forget Kevin Harvick. The race was named the 4EVER 400 as a farewell gift to the retiring Harvick, a 60-time Cup race winner and the 2014 Cup champion who will retire after this season.
Harvick has not had the equipment to compete for a title this year, but he’s often found top finishes despite his underperforming racecars. It’s something he has done throughout his career, a career that saw him step into Dale Earnhardt’s car a full year before his planned Cup debut and start winning almost immediately. His first career win at Atlanta an unforgettable catharsis for his team, still reeling from Earnhardt’s death.
Harvick finished 11th Sunday in a Budweiser livery reminiscent of his 2014 championship in the sport. It wasn’t the finish he hoped for in the race where he was honored and allowed to hand-pick crew chief Rodney Childers to give the command and NASCAR’s Mike Helton to wave the green flag, but it was probably a better finish than most drivers could have gotten from his car. In that, he closes his career the way he ran much of it, finding something that wasn’t always quite there.
What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
Denny Hamlin said 2023 was his year. Finally out from under the shadow of two-time champion Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing and seeing success as an owner as well as a driver, Hamlin entered the playoffs with a swagger he hadn’t shown before.
And he backed it up for two rounds. Hamlin finished 10th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week as well, but an issue with his car late in the race at Homestead while running third sent Hamlin into the wall and then into the garage. He leaves the weekend seventh in points, 17 under the cut line, behind Martin Truex Jr. on a tiebreaker as Truex has the best finish in the round so far. He’s not in a must-win situation, but he’s close.
So, can Hamlin close the deal this time, or will he squander his chances as he has in the past?
It all depends on Hamlin. He’s had plenty of success at Martinsville, so he can win there to overcome the deficit. He’ll need to stay out of his head and race to win next week, as opposed to racing not to lose, which never works out and is a mentality which has hurt him in the past.
Hamlin is talented enough to win a championship; he certainly has plenty of race wins. He just has to put together two races with no mistakes — something that has been his Achilles heel in the past when the pressure is on.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Martin Truex Jr. has had more than his share of bad luck (and some of it self-inflicted by the No. 19 team) in the playoffs, and Sunday was no exception. He had a decent day toward the front was fighting to hang on to the final playoff spot all day, leading twice for 10 laps. He was trapped a lap down on a late pit cycle when Larson slammed the sand barrels at the end of pit road. He was able to take a wave around and capitalize on a subsequent incident triggered by John Hunter Nemechek.
But perhaps the exclamation point on his 2023 playoffs was the engine that ended Truex’s day just as teammate Hamlin was climbing out of his car due to crash damage. Truex finished 29th and fell to 17 points below the playoff cut, meaning he will have to race his way back into the top four at Martinsville next week if he hopes to win a second title this year.
Last week’s winner Kyle Larson had one of the two best cars on Sunday, and it looked like he might put in another dominant performance at Homestead. But instead, he got snookered by Ryan Blaney on a round of green flag stops. Running second to Blaney when the two dove to pit road under green, Larson tried to close up to Blaney’s bumper coming in. When Blaney slowed sooner than Larson expected, Larson swerved to miss Blaney and hit the sand barrels instead, ending his own day and bringing out a brief red flag. Larson led 96 laps, the most of any driver, but finished 34th. Yet his playoff fate has already been sealed, so the concern is if his momentum will take a hit heading into the finale in two weeks.
Active Homestead win leader Hamlin had a fast car and his pit strategy worked well in the first two stages. Hamlin led four times for 31 laps on the day, but a couple of small pit miscues and a brush with the wall may have cost him a few spots on the day … but he paid a bigger price when something broke on the No. 11 car and slammed the wall with just 31 laps to go. Hamlin finished 30th and exits Miami 17 points below the cut line.
When… was the moment of truth?
The biggest surprise of the race was also its biggest impact. Both Bell and Blaney entered the day below the cut line and leave it on the good side. Bell is guaranteed a shot at the title, and Blaney has a double digit lead over fifth-place Tyler Reddick going into Martinsville, a track where Blaney excels. He doesn’t have a win at the 0.526-mile track, but his 9.5 average finish is the best among all active drivers.
It was a bigger than expected shift in the championship dynamic — Hamlin and Truex both had enough points to come out ahead on the resets, but as the field has been pared down, both are fighting for their seasons. Chris Buescher entered the postseason on fire but hasn’t been hot enough to put the pressure on in this round. Reddick is a driver who could reel off a win, but entering Martinsville, more surprises may not be in the cards.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
For the remaining playoff contenders, it all comes down to this: one race to keep their dreams alive.
That opportunity comes at Martinsville Speedway, where that figet became memorable a year ago as Ross Chastain stood on the gas and threw his car through turns 3 and 4 to take a spot in the Championship 4.
You won’t see that again this year; NASCAR outlawed the move before the start of the current season.
What will you see?
That’s a good question. Martinsville should provide close-quarters racing with lots of contact … but that hasn’t played out with the Next Gen car. That means track position will be doubly important, so you may see some differing pit strategies play out for contenders who aren’t up front from the get-go.
How… come Homestead isn’t a more important race?
Even before the Next Gen car, HMS has always provided some of the best intermediate track racing on the schedule. It was a decent track to host the finale once NASCAR abandoned tradition and stopped letting Atlanta Motor Speedway decide the champion.
While it’s in the critical round of eight, HMS isn’t a cutoff race. If NASCAR feels that the title must be decided at Phoenix (where the Cup cars don’t put on as good a show as the Xfinity cars or trucks), why not make HMS the cut down race for the Round of 12?
Making the Round of 8 is incredibly difficult, and HMS would be a great test for drivers. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL would be a good test in the Round of 8, so why not move them around a bit?
Homestead, a track where the racing is compelling, deserves better.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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