FOX NASCAR Insider
MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Ryan Blaney didn’t need to win at Martinsville Speedway to advance to the NASCAR Cup Series championship round.
But when it comes to advancing versus advancing with momentum and confidence, it might make all the difference.
Blaney led the final 23 laps and 145 overall as he captured the victory to earn an automatic bid to NASCAR’s one-race championship round, where the best finisher next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway among Blaney, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson will win the 2023 title.
“Cool to win this race and get locked into next week and carry amazing momentum into Phoenix,” Blaney said.
Blaney, Bell and Larson earned their spots with wins in the Round of 8, while Byron earned the final spot on points despite a miserable day Sunday where he finished 13th.
Eliminated were two championship favorites — Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin — and two, Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher, making their first appearance in NASCAR’s version of a semifinal round.
Takeaways from the elimination race at Martinsville, where Aric Almirola almost pulled off the upset in finishing second:
Truex, Hamlin Eliminated
Both Truex and Hamlin entered 17 points below the cutline and ran neck-and-neck with Blaney early in the race.
A speeding penalty about midway through the race doomed Truex, who won the pole and had selected a pit box where it is very difficult to speed unless the driver gets a great launch after the car has been serviced.
“I guess I got the most awesome launch you could ever possibly get out of that box,” Truex said. “And that’s kind of par for the course here this year.”
Martin Truex Jr. was surprised he sped on pit road and discussed being eliminated
Truex went from regular-season champion to out of contention in a postseason where he managed just one top-10 finish in nine races.
“I’m obviously disappointed,” Truex said. “I felt like we were capable of going to the final four and making something happen. But at the end of the day, we didn’t earn it and you’ve got to earn it.
“There’s four guys that really earned it and they’re going to go race like hell at Phoenix and put on a show. … It just wasn’t meant to be. It was just a tough playoffs from every angle.”
Hamlin finished third but Byron’s 13th-place finish was enough to outpoint Hamlin by eight points for the final spot in the Championship 4. Hamlin knew coming into the race that he likely needed a victory.
“There was one driver, one car just a little better than us today, for sure,” Hamlin said. “And they won the race. They’re going to race for the championship, which is well deserved.
“That was the best effort we could put forth. And it was a great effort — it just wasn’t quite enough.”
Denny Hamlin explains what was going through his mind lat at Martinsville
Blaney Big Win
With Byron struggling, Blaney likely would have gotten in on points even if he didn’t win the race. But for a driver who is in his seventh playoffs and fifth time in NASCAR’s semifinal round, he left nothing to chance as he earned a spot in the Championship 4 for the first time.
“It’s been a lot of heartbreak in this round,” Blaney said. “Especially last year, I felt like we had a good shot to make it to Phoenix and I made some mistakes that took us out.
“To come back this year, learn from those as a group, and come back even stronger? That’s all you can ask for, right?”
Ryan Blaney explains what making the Championship 4 means to him
Blaney has two wins in the last five races.
“We’ve been unbelievable,” he said. “This group, they just do the work.”
Byron Ekes In
Byron had one of his worst playoff performances, but it was good enough to earn a spot, thanks in part to the bonus points he earned during the year with a season-high six victories.
He struggled around 20th during the second stage but knew that as long as Hamlin didn’t win, all he had to do was finish 19th.
Check out full highlights from the Xfinity 500 from Martinsville Speedway!
“We worked really hard and obviously it was the worst car we’ve had this year,” said Byron, whose helmet air blower also malfunctioned, leaving him overheated by the end of the race. “We just dug really deep, and we just worked as hard as we could. I’m just really proud of our team and what we’re able to accomplish.”
Byron certainly was happy to see Blaney win — Byron is dating Blaney’s sister, Erin.
“I was really happy for him — brother-in-law,” Byron said. “He was really fast. But, man, we just had to hang on.”
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 @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.
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