Christopher Bell’s pit crew has had a rough NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Is a stress-free Martinsville Speedway race just what the doctor ordered?
Christopher Bell’s pit crew consistently ranked in the mid-20s throughout the regular season. The No. 20 team was given a shot in the arm for the playoffs by acquiring Ty Gibbs’ pit crew, which ranked third in the regular season.
That swap didn’t do the trick. Bell’s pit stops have been among the slowest for the remaining playoff drivers, and it was growing commonplace to see the No. 20 team lose one, two, even three spots on pit road each time under caution since September.
Bell dropped from the lead to third during the final round of pit stops at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he was able to pass his way back to the front and clinch a Championship 4 spot for the second straight season.
The former No. 54 crew — which was great during the regular season — was put under the microscope with Bell, and it’s felt the heat for every pit stop since.
Want to know a race that won’t have the pressure? Martinsville. Bell and the No. 20 team will still be chasing a second grandfather clock, but any potential mistakes will have no impact on his playoff standing. This Sunday’s (Oct. 29) race serves as a reprise from the pressure, and the crew will be able to regroup and perform pit stops without the entire season hanging in the balance.
The ability to take a breather this weekend will have the No. 20 crew back on top of its game for the Phoenix Raceway finale.
Can Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr. advance to Phoenix without a win this weekend?
Lap 237 at Homestead was a comedy of errors that sent Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. to the garage despite showing top-five speed all day. Homestead is a track where the duo has combined to win four times, but instead, it ended the day in the garage after simultaneous (but coincidental) mechanical failures.
Truex and Hamlin are now left in a close-to-dire situation for Martinsville with a 17-point deficit to Ryan Blaney and the cut line.
Seventeen points is far from insurmountable. After all, Blaney entered Homestead 17 points behind and left 10 up after finishing second. But with how good Blaney is at Martinsville, it will likely take a top-five finish or an abundance of stage points for Hamlin or Truex to advance without a win.
Blaney has done everything at Martinsville but win. He leads all active drivers in Martinsville average finish (9.5) and has scored seven top-five finishes in 15 starts. He has also led 377 laps at the Paperclip, the most of all active drivers without a win. If the No. 12 runs a clean race, it will be difficult for Truex and Hamlin to make up the deficit.
William Byron is the wild card. He looks relatively safe at 30 above the cut, but he’s been hit-or-miss at Martinsville after winning in April 2022. He finished seventh last fall and 23rd this spring, and he sported a pedestrian average running of position of 16th in both outings.
If Hamin, Truex and Blaney drive out of their minds while Byron struggles, it’s not inconceivable for Byron to be on the wrong side of the cut. That, however, is close to the worst-case scenario.
Regardless, Byron has a prior Martinsville win and a huge points cushion, while Blaney has always been a consistent player at the 0.526-mile track. If neither of them run into trouble, it will take a win from either Hamlin or Truex to keep their championship hopes alive.
Is Martinsville Kevin Harvick’s best chance at a farewell win?
Yes. Sure, Kevin Harvick has a record nine Cup wins at Phoenix. Sure, Harvick has 20 consecutive top 10s at Phoenix (an all-time record for a driver at any track). Sure, Harvick was going to win at Phoenix in March until a late caution ended his bid.
None of that changes the reality that the eventual champion is 9-for-9 in winning the Cup Series’ Phoenix finale since the elimination format began in 2014. The last time a non-champion won was the finale was 2013, when Hamlin scored his lone win of the season at Homestead.
Harvick is the king of Phoenix, but that alone won’t be enough to beat the Championship 4 for a win; I would be floored if anyone else was able to.
Therefore, Martinsville is Harvick’s best (and last) chance at win No. 61.
In most cases, the odds would be against Harvick in a must-win at Martinsville. His lone Cup win at the Paperclip came all the way back in 2011 with Richard Childress Racing, and from 2017 to 2022, Harvick failed to lead a single lap at the Virginia short track.
This year has been different.
Harvick led 20 laps at Martinsville in April, scored a stage two win (his only stage win since 2021) and was on pace for a top five at the very least until a botched final pit stop relegated him to outside the top 25.
By median green-flag speed per lap, Harvick was the second-fastest car at Martinsville in April, trailing only teammate Chase Briscoe. Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole had three in the top six.
It was clear from the get-go that SHR came to play at Martinsville. All four cars qualified in the top seven and combined to lead 264 of the 400 laps.
The elephant in the room is that SHR looks significantly weaker than it did at the start of the year. And if the speed is not there in practice or qualifying, Sunday’s Xfinity 500 is only going to be an uphill battle for the No. 4 team.
How will Jesse Love fare in his Xfinity rookie season for Richard Childress Racing?
Love won the 2023 ARCA Menards Series champion to the tune of 10 wins, and he’s run two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races for TRICON Garage in 2023, with a third scheduled at Phoenix.
He follows high-profile Toyota prospects Ty Gibbs and Sammy Smith in jumping straight from ARCA to Xfinity, but Love differs from the two in that he’ll be jumping from Toyota to Chevrolet in the process.
The jump from ARCA to Xfinity has never been an easy one (unless you’re Gibbs), and it’s more than likely that RCR’s Xfinity team won’t have the resources of the JGR powerhouse.
A win in his first season would be great, but it shouldn’t be the expectation. What should be the expectation is consistent top-10 finishes, occasional top fives and a clear progression in progress from February to November.
Smith (who, coincidentally, will leave JGR for Chevrolet and JR Motorsports in 2024) scored his first Xfinity win at Phoenix in March, but it’s also been a season of growing pains since.
Like Smith, Love should be fine as long as he runs near the top 10 and shows flashes of brilliance in his first year.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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