NASCAR elimination scenarios: How each driver makes the Championship 4

NASCAR elimination scenarios: How each driver makes the Championship 4


By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

The seven drivers competing for the three remaining spots to vie for the NASCAR Cup Series championship can take different approaches to earning those spots.

But the consensus is that they will all have to do one thing this weekend at Martinsville Speedway: They must qualify well Saturday.

This season’s 400-lap race on the 0.526-mile, paper-clip oval had just five lead changes the entire race. Drivers will go 500 laps (at least) Sunday, and NASCAR has changed some of the gearing since April, but passing is expected to be at a premium.

With spots in the “Championship 4” on the line, there might be more aggressiveness and more attempts to get up front. But a driver who doesn’t qualify well likely won’t earn stage points, putting even more of an emphasis on winning the race.

“Just have to qualify well,” said Denny Hamlin, who enters the race as the first driver below the cutline. “Got to be fast in restarts, and we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

Denny Hamlin on his day at Homestead

Denny Hamlin said his lack of short-run speed made the difference last Sunday at Homestead.

Thanks to his win in the semifinal round (NASCAR’s “Round of 8”) opener at Las Vegas, Joey Logano is the only driver who knows he will compete for the championship Nov. 6 at Phoenix.

The other seven championship-eligible drivers can advance either with a win or by being among the two (or three if none of them wins) highest in points.

“The first race was extremely hard to pass,” said Chase Briscoe, whose only reasonable hope of making the playoffs is to win.

“If you can get track position and maintain it, it’s going to be easy, I think, to be able to control the race.”

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Here are the outlooks for the seven drivers heading into Martinsville:

Be great

Ross Chastain (+19 on fifth): Chastain can clinch his first spot in the Championship 4 with 41 points, no matter what any other driver does. His second-place finishes in the first two races of the round also give the Trackhouse Racing driver the tiebreaker against any of the other drivers. He finished fifth at Martinsville, and that was a good finish, but he started 27th, so he earned only 32 points that day. If he starts 27th this time, stage points will be difficult to come by, and he could end up on the bubble.

Ross Chastain on trying to catch Kyle Larson

Ross Chastain on trying to catch Kyle Larson

Ross Chastain said he was just a little too tight to be able to make the moves necessary to catch Kyle Larson at Homestead.

Chase Elliott (+11 on fifth): Elliott can clinch his third consecutive spot in the Championship 4 with 50 points, no matter what any other driver does. That would require at least 15 stage points, and if he accomplishes that, he likely will be in position to challenge for the win. The Hendrick driver was on the pole, led 195 laps and swept the stages on his way to a 10th-place finish (47 points total) at Martinsville in April. The 2020 Cup champion at least knows how to handle pressure situations.

Chase Elliott on his day at Homestead

Chase Elliott on his day at Homestead

Chase Elliott said he was playing defense all day at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Be a winner

William Byron (+5 on fifth): Byron is above the cutline, but given the potential that Hamlin or Ryan Blaney wins, Byron needs to enter this race with the mindset that he must contend for the win. Yes, the Hendrick driver could catch and pass Elliott and Chastain on points, but they both have shown strength at Martinsville. Byron won at Martinsville in April — he led 212 laps — so he has confidence that he can repeat. He’s seeking his first trip to the championship round.

Denny Hamlin (-5 behind fourth): Hamlin has five career victories at Martinsville but probably doesn’t enter with a ton of confidence. His team has lacked speed in recent playoff races, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was 28th in April at Martinsville. Still, Hamlin has made the championship round each of the past three years, and you never count out someone with 48 career Cup wins.

Ryan Blaney (-18 behind fourth): Blaney left the first two races of this round frustrated, as mistakes have put him in a hole such that he might be able to vie for a spot on points if he runs well in both stages, but he likely has little chance of advancing without a win. He was good at Martinsville in April, finishing fourth, but matching that likely won’t be good enough for the Team Penske driver, who is winless on the year and staring at being eliminated in the semifinal round for the fourth time in six years.

Ryan Blaney frustrated over his mistake

Ryan Blaney frustrated over his mistake

Ryan Blaney was frustrated with himself for making a mistake in leaving pit road at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Christopher Bell (-33 behind fourth): He has done it before — Bell won a few weeks ago at the Charlotte road course to advance to this round — so he can do it again. But will he? He was 20th at Martinsville in April. As is the case with Bell’s JGR teammate Hamlin, this just might not be his year, which is strange to write considering that he seemed like a favorite after the first round.

Chase Briscoe (-44 behind fourth): Briscoe wrecked at Homestead and has put his back against the wall, needing to win at Martinsville. He was ninth there in April, so he will need to show solid improvement. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver won at Phoenix earlier this year, so if he can pull off a miracle at Martinsville, he would be one of the favorites for the title.

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrassand sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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Jorge Oliveira