And then there were eight. NASCAR’s group of title contenders has been whittled down to a select group that includes four previous winners: Brad Keselowski (2012), Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), and Jimmie Johnson (seven titles, including last season).
The heavyweights go even deeper, with 2017 favorite Martin Truex Jr. holding what seems like an insurmountable lead. Truex has a 52-point cushion on the Championship Four cutline by virtue of a NASCAR-best seven victories and 69 total playoff points. Add in a fellow Toyota driver, Denny Hamlin, and this list is filled with familiar names at the front.
But if you’re NASCAR, down in Daytona Beach you’re secretly rooting for two others, buried at the bottom of the list. Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, a duo whose age combined (44) barely outranks Johnson’s 42, starts this round as major underdogs. They have a total of one career Cup Series win combined while beginning eight and 11 points behind the cutline, respectively.
But the Blaney-Elliott duo is also the key to NASCAR’s future. Those are the names young fans must latch onto to stop this absurd decline, both in the Nielsen ratings and the stands. At Talladega Superspeedway a few weeks ago, Elliott surged to the front, on the verge of a first win and the stands roared like retiring teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in out front.
Blaney, meanwhile has established a niche social media following along with best friend Darrell Wallace Jr., who on Wednesday announced his full-time ride in Cup for 2018. Blaney is jumping to Team Penske next year, a ride whose expectations come hand-in-hand with championship performances.
Those are the names truly on the rise. Even Truex, whose first title would be a great storyline with a once single-car operation based outside Charlotte, wouldn’t move the needle like those two. Blaney and Elliott, considering the names ahead of them, also enter Martinsville with nothing to lose. Neither driver was expected to even be in this round after inconsistent regular seasons.
As we’ve seen the past few years (2014: Ryan Newman, 2015: Jeff Gordon) the Round of 8 has allowed some upset picks to sneak in. The unpredictability of Sunday’s short track action offers these youngsters an opportunity.
NASCAR, after a season filled with challenges, hopes this is one challenge their 20-something drivers can navigate through.
First Data 500
Time: Sunday, Oct. 29 at 3 p.m. ET
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, it’s Martin Truex Jr. who’s been successful during the NASCAR playoffs, but Earnhardt’s No. 88 team also has their act together. The last four races have produced runs of seventh, 12th, seventh and seventh, easily the best stretch of his season.
Now, the sport’s Most Popular Driver heads to two tracks where he can pop up and win. Earnhardt’s been victorious at Martinsville as recently as 2014 and he was fifth at Texas Motor Speedway in the spring (a season best). Come to think of it, TMS was where Earnhardt picked up his first ever Cup victory as a rookie in 2000. Is a storybook ending on the way?
Who’s at the Back: Danica Patrick
Still seeking a ride for 2018, Patrick’s fall audition is suddenly falling flat. Three straight wrecks have sidelined a solid run of top-20 performances. The latest one, at Kansas, produced her 10th DNF, a total that leaves her second in the Cup Series to Jeffrey Earnhardt. Earnhardt though drives for an underfunded team at Circle Sport/TMG. For Patrick, millions in sponsorship make the failures stand out although a number of those crashes have not been her fault.
Darrell Wallace Jr. officially signed with the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports Wednesday. That makes him the first full-time African-American driver in the series since Wendell Scott in 1971. Sponsors, manufacturers, and even the race shop for RPM will be announced at a later date.
Travis Mack has been announced as the crew chief for Kasey Kahne next season at Leavine Family Racing. Mack, who’s a car chief at Hendrick Motorsports, will move over with Kahne to the single-car No. 95 team.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Wins for Kyle Larson this season. That’s the most for any driver who failed to reach the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8. Larson had an engine failure sideline him at Kansas and keep the No. 42 team from advancing through.
Starts for Larson with Chip Ganassi Racing before experiencing his first Cup DNF for engine failure. That’s nearly four full seasons with the team.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Martinsville and Denny Hamlin are intertwined. One of the two tracks in Hamlin’s native Virginia has delivered him the greatest success over his Cup career. He’s earned five victories at the paperclip-shaped oval and has four straight top-10 finishes in the fall event here. The No. 11 Toyota team knows this race is a chance to create distance between them and the other Championship Four contenders fighting for fourth. They’ll be up front.
Just like Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson knows a victory would provide an automatic bid to the Championship Four. Why spend the next three weeks on the bubble when you own nine career victories at Martinsville? The No. 48 team has missed a beat for most of the Playoffs but Sunday offers a chance to make it right.
Ryan Newman has had it rough during the NASCAR Playoffs but a short track like Martinsville evens the score for middle-tier Richard Childress Racing. Newman has four straight top-16 finishes here, a win back in 2012, and knows how to dodge short track mayhem. Expect the No. 31 to be a dark horse contender.
How about Joey Logano? The Team Penske driver has been virtually invisible throughout a season where he missed the NASCAR Playoffs altogether. But at Martinsville, he has nine straight starts inside the top 10 (including three poles) and has run as high as third. He’d even have a win, back in 2015 without a little Matt Kenseth payback. Keep an eye on the No. 22 team and grab him for the roster if he qualifies near the front.
JTG-Daugherty Racing and AJ Allmendinger stand out above the pack. The ‘Dinger has four straight top-11 finishes at this facility which have all come in disappointing seasons. No matter how bad the No. 47 is running coming in, Martinsville is the place that makes it all better.
Don’t count out JTGD teammate Chris Buescher, either. He had a solid sixth at Kansas last weekend and earned an 11th-place finish at Martinsville back in the spring.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch holds the edge with 3/1 odds while Hamlin sits second at 5/1.
What I Think
Toyotas have dominated the playoffs thus far and Sunday, it’s Denny Hamlin’s time to shine. Look for the No. 11 Toyota to punch its ticket to the Homestead Championship Four.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP Inc.)