It’s a Halloween edition of the penultimate race of the NASCAR season, the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway. This .533-mile oval is the shortest, slowest track on the circuit, often where the most mischief happens late in a year where NASCAR drivers are eager to cash in on revenge.
If you’re looking for candy from this experience, well, you trick-or-treated too late. Kyle Larson already ran off with it all, victories in the last two races securing a spot in the Championship 4 and a whopping 74-point lead heading into the Round of 8 finale. He’ll be dressing up as the champion one week early and hoping that costume sticks through the Phoenix finale on November 7.
Chase Elliott will be dressing up with an invisibility cloak, the kind that keeps him hidden from other drivers… especially Kevin Harvick. The reigning Martinsville champ has a 34-point lead on the cutline and a 33-point lead on fourth place Kyle Busch. That should be a healthy enough margin to move on and defend his title at Phoenix. But after a month’s worth of battling Harvick on the racetrack, there’s one last chance for the No. 4 team to get their revenge.
Sure, NASCAR said it should stop. It sure didn’t stop Matt Kenseth back in 2015 from wrecking Joey Logano out of the lead here. Elliott can’t feel safe until after the checkered flag falls with his car in one piece.
Denny Hamlin, third in points, is also in solid position to advance unless catastrophe strikes. Problem is, he’s fading into the background at the wrong possible time, similar to his title run turned sour in 2020. A win this weekend would be nice to keep a little pressure on Larson after the duo battled for the regular-season championship.
For the other five drivers in the championship chase (Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano) it’s one of the most wide-open races in years for that final spot. Truex on paper should have the edge, winning three of the past four Martinsville races but his team has looked unsteady at best over the past month.
That would leave a driver like Kyle Busch in the driver’s seat, right? Except he’s winless since the end of June at Pocono in a fuel mileage finish. Blaney has never won here, period, while his two Penske teammates (Keselowski-Logano) have combined to lead just 64 laps during the playoffs.
It all adds up to a wild card event, the type of race where anything can and often will happen. The list of drivers spinning each other out, then doing post-race PR spin grows seemingly every year. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin made nice in 2019. Logano bumped Truex out of the way on the last lap to win a year earlier, the victory that catapulted him to the 2018 championship. And who can forget the Elliott-Hamlin brouhaha from 2017?
With the aggression we’ve seen throughout this year’s playoffs, expect another one of these bumper-car endings to be written right into the history books.
Date: Sunday, Oct. 31
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Larson
Larson has this category on lockdown, matching Harvick’s nine-win total from 2020 after pulling away during the closing laps at Kansas. In the process, he set a new record for laps led in a 36-race season (2,397) while winning three straight races for the second time in five months. Anything less than the championship would be a disappointment for one of the best seasons we’ve seen in the playoff era.
Who's at the Back: Aric Almirola
It just wasn’t meant to be for this Stewart-Haas Racing driver who’s mostly had a 2021 season to forget. An upset victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway landed him inside the playoffs, giving hope the No. 10 team would salvage a disastrous year. Instead, he hasn’t had a single top-10 finish in the last dozen races, running 26th at Kansas to drop to 15th in points, some 116 behind Kurt Busch for 10th. Only Michael McDowell has suffered through a worse postseason with underfunded Front Row Motorsports.
Former Cup Series drivers turned NASCAR announcers Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with Tony Stewart got to run the NASCAR Next Gen car at Bowman-Gray Stadium in North Carolina this week. Said Earnhardt: “This car does everything better. I was skeptical, but I think it’s going to work really well.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he will also continue to run one race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. This week, he made his 2022 pick: Martinsville Speedway on April 8.
Austin Hill is moving up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Richard Childress Racing next season. The 27-year-old Camping World Truck Series campaigner has tallied up eight victories over the past three full-time series driving for Shigeaki Hattori.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-5 finishes by William Byron this season for Hendrick Motorsports. He had nine total in the last two seasons combined.
DNFs by Quin Houff this season, a total that leads all Cup drivers with two races remaining. His team, Starcom Racing, is selling its charter and scaling back from full-time competition after next weekend.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to ignore the recent history of Martin Truex Jr. that leaves him a leg up over everyone else at this track. Three wins in the last four races here could have turned into four straight if not for a flat tire while running second last fall. Remember, the No. 19 team has been at its best during the 750-horsepower races, including emerging the winner at Phoenix this spring. That momentum has to count for something when the chips are down, right?
Martinsville is the last chance in the Round of 8 for Denny Hamlin to put some pressure on Kyle Larson. His average finish at the track of 9.7 puts Larson’s 21.1 to shame; Hamlin also has five victories compared to Larson’s zero. Third in the spring, leading 276 laps, he’s your best bet for bonus points and a solid top-5 finish to regain momentum before the Phoenix finale.
After earning just one top-5 finish in this year’s playoff, Alex Bowman is a name you can easily forget. Don’t. Two of his three career top-10 performances at Martinsville occurred in the last three races alone. Starting 13th, there’s an opportunity for position differential points if Bowman charges up and matches those sixth-place results.
Christopher Bell is another young driver who might be overlooked in favor of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, especially with crew chief Adam Stevens serving a one-race suspension for a lug nut violation. But the progression at Martinsville has been slow and steady: from 28th, to 15th, to seventh with nine laps led during the spring race. A 12th-place starting spot means major dividends if Bell works his way into the top 5 by race’s end.
Bubba Wallace earned a 16th at Martinsville back in the spring, leading 23 laps for his fourth top-20 finish at the track in five races. Starting 17th already gives him the track position needed to rinse and repeat.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn’t known as a short track specialist but has quietly excelled at this track type throughout the year: second at the Bristol Dirt Race and 15th at Martinsville in the spring. His best career finish at Martinsville was 10th, twice, but that would be more than enough for him to excel in daily fantasy.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. edges out Kyle Larson this week, posting +450 odds to win at Martinsville according to vegasinsider.com. Larson sits second at +500, followed by Chase Elliott at +600 and Denny Hamlin at +650.
Brad Keselowski is listed as the playoff longshot of all eight drivers, sitting at +900. Kurt Busch, fresh off a top-5 finish at Kansas, is a decent pick among the non-championship contenders at +5000.
What I Think
I’ll be boring and pick Martin Truex Jr. to win his fourth Martinsville race in five starts. That puts him in the Championship 4 along with Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin, leaving the title to be decided between the two best multi-car organizations this year (Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing).
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.