THE LEFT TURN
NASCAR playoffs at Martinsville: Xfinity 500 preview, picks
It’s the penultimate race of the 2022 season at Martinsville this weekend as each of the remaining drivers look to clinch their spot in the championship race in two weeks at Phoenix. There are very few tracks that are harder on racecars than this one, but with recent changes to the cars, we are likely to see a much different race than there has been in the past. It will be interesting to see if there is less beating and banging with how well these cars handle. I don’t foresee this being too big of a problem considering the high stakes of this race.
Last week, Kyle Larson captured his 3rd victory of the season after thoroughly dominating the field. I read somewhere on Twitter that without stage breaks, Larson would have won the race by two laps. It’s a shame that he had a bad Round of 12 and his teammate’s points were reinstated, or else he would be racing for a championship.
For the eight drivers in the hunt it was a relatively clean day. Ross Chastain finished the highest, as he continued his hot streak with a second place finish. He is in the best standing when it comes to the top eight (aside from Joey Logano who is already in because of his win at Las Vegas).
The next highest finisher was Denny Hamlin, his car really came around in the latter stages of the race as he finished 7th. Despite all this, he will still have to race his way into the championship round as he is five points back. He would benefit greatly in scoring stage points and luckily for him, he has won stages here in the past. He will be one to watch come Sunday.
Championship favorite Chase Elliott would have a disappointing result after finishing fourteenth, but luckily it wasn’t a complete loss for him as he was able to accumulate 8 stage points. It’s been an abysmal round for the 2020 champion, at the Roval Tyler Reddick just destroyed him on the final restart, then an awful 20th place finish at Las Vegas. Coupled with his result at Homestead, Elliott is now only 11 points to the good going into Martinsville. As stressful as this may look, Martinsville is a top track for Elliott on the schedule. He will have to play a little bit of defense, but as long as he can score at least two stage points and stay around the top ten, he should be okay.
Ryan Blaney is currently 6th in points and eighteen points behind the cut-off. For as disappointing as it is that he hasn’t been able to win a race, Blaney has been extremely consistent. Over the season, he has scored the third-highest amount of stage points. No one has more stage victories than he does this season, with eight, and that’s what has kept him in the running for a championship. While it’s not impossible for him to point his way into the championship race, it's more than likely that he will need a victory to move on.
For Drivers like William Byron, Christopher Bell and Chase Briscoe, Martinsville is a race that one of these three will need to win to advance. It’s a bit of a surprise that Bell is as low as he is in the standings, but after getting swept up in a crash at Las Vegas when Bubba Wallace right hooked Kyle Larson, he has not been able to recover since then.
It’s been a roller coaster for William Byron. He went from being a horse at the glue factory at Texas after losing 25 points, to back in the hunt when NASCAR controversially gave his points back. Since then he’s had a mediocre Round of 8 with finishes of 13th and 14th. Regardless, his consistency has been huge as everyone else has had trouble. He’s on the bubble but is hanging on for dear life as Denny Hamlin is hot on his heels.
For Chase Briscoe, his Cinderella run appears to be on life support, as he is currently eighth in points and 44 points behind the cut-off. The only way he can make it in is to win. It has been a great season for the Indiana driver, he has carried the banner for Stewart-Haas racing this season and has been in the mix to win races. His improvement will be much appreciated as this team has a lot of uncertainty over the next year as Kevin Harvick appears to be heading towards retirement after next season. He could be the driver that they build around for the future.
The driver that I have winning this weekend is not in the Round of 8, instead a driver who is closing in on the end of an era. While it’s been a tough season for this driver, filled with failed sponsor inquiries, contract disputes and spin-outs. I think Sunday will be his final curtain call, the driver I am talking about of course is Kyle Busch. Despite the rough stretch we have seen in the last six races, no one currently has a higher average finish on short-tracks than Rowdy. He has won here at this track twice in 2016 and 2017, so he can get around this track almost better than anyone. This will more than likely be his best chance to win one more race at Joe Gibbs Racing. What a way this would be to go out for a dynamic pairing that has seen two championships and 56 victories.