Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Ryan Blaney’s 1st Clock Paves the Way to Title Race

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Entering Sunday’s (Oct. 29) Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Ryan Blaney was the only current Cup driver who boasted a top-10 average finish at the Virginia short track, but a win continued to elude him. Blaney changed that on Sunday, passing Aric Almirola with 23 laps to go to win by .899 seconds. Denny Hamlin, Chase Briscoe and Joey Logano completed a somewhat unexpected top five.

Blaney finished second to Hamlin in stage one, then passed Hamlin in stage two, winning that segment and showing that his No. 12 was the car to beat. Hamlin’s pit crew was able to get him out in front of Blaney on a couple of stops under yellow, but Blaney was able to pass Hamlin, even using the outside line that’s notoriously difficult at Martinsville to pull off.

After what proved to be the final restart, the leaders were mired in traffic after several others stayed out on track. Blaney followed Hamlin for many laps, letting the No. 11 do the hard work of making racing room, before passing him and setting sail on the lead. Almirola had taken the lead from Chase Elliott, who was on a different pit cycle, but Blaney ran him down. 

Hamlin was able to make his way to third, but he was eight seconds behind Blaney by the time he was able to do it. Hamlin shaved that margin nearly in half, but he couldn’t reel in Almirola as Blaney battler lapped traffic to take the win. William Byron had to finish 18th or better to make the title race if Hamlin didn’t win, so his 13th-place result was enough to make him the fourth and final driver still in the title hunt for the season finale next week, joining Blaney and the previous Round of 8 winners Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell.

And don’t forget Almirola. The 39-year-old announced earlier in the weekend that 2023 will be his final year of full-time NASCAR racing. He’s always been strongest on the flat tracks, with his most recent win coming in 2021 at New Hampshire. He and the No. 10 team used pit strategy to gain track position late, and Almirola ran down and passed the leaders, leading 66 laps before Blaney got by for the win. Almirola held on to second for his 30th career top five.

See also
William Byron Overcomes Bad Day To Make Championship 4

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

The race was the best we’ve seen at Martinsville since the Next Gen car was introduced last year, Hail Melon aside, and there were certainly some highlights. Drivers were able to chase down and pass the leader, and the chrome horn was back in play. But it’s hard to deny that the short tracks, flat tracks and road courses have suffered from the Next Gen package while the intermediates have benefitted.

Something needs to be done about the package on the shorter tracks and road courses, though, but how committed to better racing is NASCAR?

Last year, there was a single off-season test of short-track updates at Phoenix, and the changes NASCAR brought were minor; the spoiler changes were suggested by the drivers at the test, not NASCAR, and there’s been little discussion of anything further save a tire compound that was used at New Hampshire with limited success.

NASCAR needs to be more proactive here. Multiple off-season tests (nearby North Wilkesboro Speedway is probably off the table due to repaving, but Martinsville, Rockingham and the Charlotte ROVAL are potential options). Whether it takes body and chassis modifications, more horsepower or something else, a commitment to trying different options would go a long way toward showing fans that the sanctioning body is dedicated to improving the racing.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Martin Truex Jr. ran the fastest lap of the race on lap 3, but his day went downhill from there. Entering the day 17 points below the cutline, Truex realistically needed a win to advance to the title race. Instead, a speeding penalty and a pit error on a subsequent stop took away any chance Truex had to advance. He ultimately wound up rebounding to 12th, still 28 points behind Byron.

Defending race winner Christopher Bell didn’t need to win to advance as was the case a year ago … which was just as well for Bell who didn’t have a winning car on Sunday. He ran toward the back of the top 10 (finishing sixth and 10th in the opening stages) and came home seventh. But he’s already locked into the title race, so he can only look forward after his solid day. 

Active Martinsville win leader Denny Hamlin hasn’t won at the short track in his home state in eight years. In the first half, Hamlin looked like he might end that streak, finishing first and second in the first two stages, avoiding a crash that could have been disastrous and not speeding on pit road, his Achilles’ heel. But in the second half, the No. 11 wasn’t quite as good as Blaney’s No 12, and pit strategy left Hamlin deeper in the field than he had been all day. He rebounded to finish third, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the points deficit he fell into last week.

See also
Denny Hamlin Comes Up Just Short (Again) in Championship 4 Bid

When… was the moment of truth?

After a shaky start to the playoffs, Blaney has been the picture of consistency over the last five weeks, with two wins, a runner-up finish and a low finish of 12th. If winning the title is about peaking at the right time, then Blaney has made himself a favorite heading to Phoenix with plenty of momentum.

But Bell and Byron have also been strong over the last five, with Larson being perhaps the least consistent, though his win at Las Vegas and sixth-place finish Sunday are nothing to scoff at.

When the playoff started, Hamlin and Truex were title favorites, and Hamlin was strong in the he opening rounds but has two finishes of 30th or worse in the last four races. Hamlin’s weakness hasn’t generally been in making the playoffs, but in finishing them out.

Truex, on the other hand, had a terrible playoff run. While he was strong enough to squeeze through to the Round of 8, he had just one top-10 finish throughout; not enough to make him a serious title threat. 

It was getting hot in the second half that paid dividends for the contenders.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

Because it’s one more for all the marbles.

The Cup Series will decide the championship Sunday (Nov. 5) at Phoenix Raceway as four drivers duke it out for the big trophy. The best finisher among them will win it.

With a three-in-four chance at a first-time champion, it should be a compelling finish to the season.

Next week will also mark the end of Kevin Harvick’s outstanding driving career. The 2014 champion leaves 10th in all-time Cup wins with 60. Often overshadowed by drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Harvick amassed many of his wins in mediocre equipment, and often the biggest obstacle early on was his own temper.

You won’t hear a lot of talk about him on the broadcast, because he’s not in the championship hunt, but next year, you’ll hear him plenty as he starts his next chapter as an analyst for FOX Sports.

How… come teammates won’t race each other on restarts at Martinsville?

It’s become a common practice at Martinsville that if teammates are restarting first and second at Martinsville, the leader will start on the outside while his teammate lines up on the bottom and lets him by. Since the advent of the choose cone, teams frequently set up this way. The driver on the inside backs off just enough coming to the start (legal because he’s not the leader) that the teammate on the outside can slot in in front of him, and they continue in the top two spots.

Generally, restarting on the inside is a major advantage at Martinsville, so it’s obvious that most of the time, the inside driver is letting the one on the outside have the position. If there are no teammates in sight, the leader chooses the bottom line because of the advantage it gives.

So, why does NASCAR allow this, especially with a package that favors clean air so much at Martinsville? Right now the drivers are certainly exploiting a loophole — the leader controls the start and he can’t lay back, but the second-place driver can. The second-place driver can’t outjump the leader on the start, so the leader has to start on top to make it work, and that means team orders on full display because the inside driver can usually run with the leader if he wants to. And if it’s not a teammate he’s giving a position to, he can suddenly beat him just fine.

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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Echo

The drivers are exploiting the loophole because Nascar isn’t doing anything at all about making cars able to pass the car in front of them in dirty hair. Ben Kennedy is as bad as Brian. I’m so glad I’m hearing Denny whine about everything since he isn’t going to be a champion again. Made my year.

janice

when blaney won, i wondered what his father was thinking.

i’d kind of like harvick to win next week at phoenix to end his career. he was the king of phoenix for a while. but of course all the focus will be on the championship 4. it is an interesting grouping. definitely not one that i think na$car had planned on it being.

WJW Motorsports

His father is thinking – “Even I could have won a championship under this ridiculous system”

wildcats2016

You can’t blame the drivers for exploiting whatever loophole they can find. Before restarts became a wreckfest, they didn’t need to do that but the new rules make this the best way to NOT wreck if you are the leader.

RCFX1

Hamlin is quickly becoming the biggest crybaby in the field. Enough…. Then he’ll go on his podcast and bitch about even more things.

WJW Motorsports

I don’t think Sheldon and Austin got your memo about teammates and restarts at Martinsville.

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