Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Ryan Blaney Is the Championship Favorite

What Happened?

Ryan Blaney won the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday (Oct. 29) over Aric Almirola after trading the lead with Denny Hamlin throughout the day.

The Championship 4 is Blaney, Christopher Bell, William Byron, and Kyle Larson. The win put Blaney in the Championship 4, but without it, he was already over the cutline by nearly 20 points at the end of the day.

The four drivers eliminated from the hunt were Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick, and Chris Buescher.

Unfortunately for Hamlin, he’s found one more way to lose a championship as he finished 8 points below the playoff cut line, lacking the spots needed to point his way in. When he got out of his car his voice choked as he held back tears. For the second year in a row, he is the first car out of the Championship 4.

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

As long as Byron maintained a position above 18th on the race track he would advance, and he did just that, finishing in the 13th spot after battling an ill-handling race car all day. It is Byron and Blaney’s first Championship 4 appearance in their careers, a long-awaited achievement from both.

It’s a very young Championship 4. Larson is the oldest contender at 31 years old and Bell and Larson each are only making their second Championship 4 appearance.

Meanwhile, Truex’s playoff misfortunes finally caught up to him at Martinsville, coming home with a 12th-place finish after speeding on pit road mid-race and running outside of the top 15 from that point on.

But What Really Happened?

Blaney dominated, putting on a statement performance. He battled with Hamlin throughout the day, finishing second in stage one and grabbing the win in stage two. After the final round of yellow-flag pit stops, Blaney found himself ahead of Hamlin and never looked back.

A big part of his dominance is owed to the field putting on a relatively clean race in the final half, something that was unexpected considering how many cautions happened in the first half.

The final 168 laps were run on a green flag following pit stops that shook up the field, putting Chase Elliott in the lead and Almirola near the front in the second-to-last race of his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career.

This allowed Blaney to perform over the long run and advance toward the lead without a challenge from a single driver behind him.

Blaney is an elite-level driver on one of the best teams in the sport, but prior to this championship run, he was considered somewhat overrated, with Kyle Petty calling him out personally on the NASCAR on NBC podcast on March 6:

“Blaney is the new Kasey Kahne, potential unfulfilled. Everybody wants to talk about what he can do, but he never does anything for whatever reason. For whatever reason, he just never gets past that hump.”

Well, Blaney has now officially gotten past that hump, if he hadn’t already. He’s finally won at Martinsville after finishing top 11 in all but one of the last 13 races there. Now, he can carry that momentum forward onto Phoenix.

There’s a lot of heavy opposition ahead of him like Byron, who has run well at Phoenix lately and is the winningest driver in the Cup Series this year. Bell, whose stock is rising exponentially with every passing month, and Larson, who needs no explanation for his threat.

Not to mention, Blaney was the 12-seed coming into the round of 16 and no Cup champion has ever won from that low in the standings.

Yet, Blaney has established himself as one of the biggest underdogs in NASCAR history with his Round of 8 alone, flying through the round with a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a second at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and now a win at Martinsville.

Momentum is an important thing in all sports, and if an athlete believes they can win with proof, then they will do just that.

Of course, we can’t forget the elephant in the room that is Blaney’s excellent stats at Phoenix Raceway, led by a pair of runner-up finishes in the last two races, and finishes in the top 10 in eight of the last nine. The other three drivers have had some good runs at Phoenix, but Blaney is in the unique position to combine his success with momentum and come into the event with a full head of steam.

Who Stood Out?

This Martinsville race is characterized by drivers performing outside of their norms. Stewart-Haas Racing showed out throughout the day, with Almirola finishing second and Chase Briscoe qualifying on the podium and pushing through to a fourth-place finish.

Ryan Preece and Kevin Harvick also ran within the top 10 in the first two stages.

Though Almirola and Harvick are on their way out, this race should give SHR the confidence that the speed is still there, somewhere. Josh Berry and whoever ends up filling in on the No. 10 team can be optimistic knowing that there is performance to capitalize on.

Overall, it was a great day for Ford because seven of the top 10 were Blue Ovals. Joey Logano came across the line in fifth and Austin Cindric got an uncharacteristically high ninth-place finish, meaning all Team Penske cars finished in the top 10.

Todd Gilliland turned heads, rounding out the top 10 after running within the top 15 all day while his ex-playoff teammate Michael McDowell faltered. Even Harrison Burton managed a 15th-place finish despite being involved in several incidents that had him struggling to get back onto the lead lap.

Who Fell Flat?

Many of the playoff drivers contributed to the inconsistent nature of this race. Buescher, Reddick, and Byron all ran outside of the top 20 for a portion of it. Buescher’s performance at Homestead aside, it is uncharacteristic for all of these drivers to run the way that they did.

Reddick is not great at Martinsville, but he was coming off of great momentum at Homestead and was only down by 10 points coming in.

Though Buescher made an intense charge to the front in the final stage, he was lagging far behind his teammate Brad Keselowski for most of the day, just like Homestead. In the end, Buescher only finished 8th when he needed a win.

Byron has a recent Martinsville victory, but in this race, it looked like Hendrick Motorsports pulled 2018 Byron through a wormhole to run it. In fact, Chevrolet as a whole struggled throughout this race.

The bell tolled when the pink Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 pace car shut off while pacing the field, setting the tone for the manufacturer’s race. The Trackhouse Racing Team and Richard Childress Racing cars were non-factors. Carson Hocevar looked like Noah Gragson out there, and Larson was the only bowtie driver in the top 10 at the line. This was unusual considering that Martinsville is one of the only tracks he is usually not a contender at, despite a win there earlier in the season.

Much higher performance is expected of the winningest team in NASCAR history and one that has had so much success there. The same can be said about Joe Gibbs Racing, with Truex, the regular season champion, finally being eliminated in the most dramatic fashion.

After finally finding speed throughout the Round of 8, an engine expiration at Homestead found him below the cutline going into this race, and the only thing that could top his bad luck was something ridiculous. Well, ridiculousness happened when Truex was too fast entering pit road during stage two pitstops.

You’d think it’d end there and he would work hard all day to get back to the front, but no, to begin the final stage, Truex’s new jackman and tire changer screwed up a pit stop worse than anyone knew was possible. The jack came out from underneath the race car and came down without the wheel on the hub, costing them crucial positions on the racetrack.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Crew Complete Playoff Collapse

At the end of the day, Truex finished a measly 12th place, still surprisingly high considering his misfortunes, but nowhere close to sniffing the trophy. It’s hard to remember with all of that happening that Truex started the day on the pole.

But if there is any question about the legitimacy and importance of the regular season championship in today’s format, then the fact that Truex even had a chance at all to make the championship in this race is proof enough.

Better Than Last Time?

Really it wasn’t better or worse than last time. Despite the softer tire going into this race, the short track package still suffers as much as it did earlier in the year, though the racing we saw at Martinsville today is still miles better than what we saw in the 2022 spring race, and with each race, the product has seemingly improved, even if by only very small margins.

NASCAR introduced a new short track package this year aimed at lowering downforce, and compared to the fall race last year, there has been some refinement.

Last year’s Xfinity 500 was filled with chaos and controversy, but it only had eight lead changes, This year’s NOCO 400 in April saw 10, while Sunday’s Xfinity 500 rose the total to 12.

There were some actual comers and goers in this race and while Blaney and Hamlin mostly fought after restarts, they did trade positions during green-flag runs. And just like last year, there was a substantial dose of strategy injected into the event.

Apart from Blaney and Hamlin, the top 10 looks very different compared to how it looked at the drop of the green flag. It’s a far cry from Gen 6 Martinsville racing, but honestly, it’s getting closer, at least in optics.

For casual race fans, it wasn’t much to look at except for the entertaining bumping and grinding action, which is still what Martinsville should aim to provide, but for the more “hardcore” fan there were tons of tasty storylines, rivalries, and strategy calls to follow along with as the race went on. In that sense, it was really not that different from last year, even with the ‘Hail Melon’.

Paint Scheme of the Race

This was a tough battle honestly, with Byron looking like a McDonald’s from the early 2000s with those PODS Moving & Storage colors and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hitting the track as a bright orange Reese’s blur. You could almost feel the fresh air emanating from Daniel Suárez’s Jockey Outdoor scheme.

At the end of the day, however, it was Reddick’s new Monster Energy Beast Unleashed paint scheme that stole the spotlight.

Usually, the Monster Energy paint schemes are the most boring and soulless on the race track, sporting the same bland matte black and green color pallet since they entered the sport, no matter who is behind the wheel. This paint scheme, however, actually uses the Monster colors intelligently to create something that looks really cool flying on a racetrack.

What really makes the scheme pop is the emphasis on the green rather than the black, along with the bright green on the front bumper. It is similar to how Raptor changed its Byron paint scheme halfway through 2022, making it significantly better than the drab black and green slab that in all honesty was not too far from the standard Monster schemes.

I’m sure many will fight me tooth and nail for the Reese’s scheme, but I think the Monster Energy schemes have such extreme untapped potential that I have to put this scheme in the top spot for finally biting into it.

What’s Next?

Well, we crown a champion. After a long year of racing, it’s finally time to figure out who rises to the top in the desert following all of the action, fighting, and drama in 2023.

The NASCAR Cup Series championship race will be held at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 5 at 3 p.m. ET and broadcast on NBC. Practice will be held at 8:05 p.m. ET on Friday, Nov. 3 on USA Network. Qualifying will be live at 4:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, Nov. 4, also on USA Network.

About the author

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

9 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
DoninAjax

Blaney won the last example of Brian’s product. Therefore he is the favourite for the next one. Who was the last driver to win two in a row?

Echo

Any of these 4 can win it, spin the wheel and see how fate and luck play out in a championship race of 4 drivers in ONE race. Larson is the best driver, but he’s always said Christopher Bell beating him all the time forces him to become a better driver. Which crew chief gets the car setup right. Does anyone mess up on pit stops, does someone get a flat tire or involved in someone else’s wreck. Think luck doesn’t play a big part !!! Blaney definitely has the best stats at Phoenix. If Byron is on his game, look out, same for Larson. Flip a coin. I’ll be happy for any of the 4 who wins. I’ve already won, the Hack isn’t in it. But I will bet anyone Hamlin will do anything to win this race.

Carl D.

Say what you will about the Chevys, but they’re the only manufacturer with two cars in the final four.

Kevin in SoCal

A few years ago it was “the big 3 and me” from Logano.

Now this year its “the three B’s and me” from Larson.

Larson has the most career wins, but Byron has the biggest breakout year. Larson is probably the favorite, but any of them could win.

Bill B

I won’t be upset if any of these four won a championship. You could justify any of them as being worthy. If I could choose the champion it would be Blaney. Mainly because he’s never won a championship and he’s been soldiering on out there for almost a decade. I like Larson and think he’s the best driver in NASCAR right now (all things equal), but he’s already got one. Bell and Byron are just starting out so they will have their chances in the future.

Speaking of the future, it seems to be here. Oldest driver is 31, the other three under 30. Has the torch been passed?

But the truth is, anyone of them could be champion. They just need a really fast final pit stop.

Man, that Reeses paint scheme was the best. How could you not give them the edge, it was Halloween weekend? Monster Energy really went out on a limb, a green and black car,,,, AGAIN.

Last edited 6 months ago by Bill B
DoninAjax

Why doesn’t anyone say Byron is the favourite? After all, he has won the most events this season and isn’t that argument start this whole Chase fiasco. NA%CAR has been trying sine 2004 to have the driver with the most wins get the title and now they are settling for just the driver who wins the last event.

It’s 11:40 am and there is hail coming down!

Last edited 6 months ago by DoninAjax
Bill B

The favorite should be whoever has the best pit crew. That’s what will decide it.

DoninAjax

You mean the crew that gets their driver out first on the last pit stop of the last example of Brian’s product for the season. It’s the only one that counts.

RCFX1

Larson, Byron, Bell, Blaney. Any of those 4 works for me. I would have to give Larson the edge just because he’s able to adjust to a lousy car. If he can keep from being wrecked by someone or himself, I think he’s the favorite. It all comes down to luck. Who you happen to be near, whether the tires are good, a pit stop that goes wrong, a speeding penalty, etc… It’s not the best driver or the fastest car.

Share via