But considering the degree of difficulty at Kansas Speedway – trying to overcome a “huge game-changer” of massive wind gusts while running inches from the wall trying to chase down the Cup Series’ best driver and master of the high line – they were happy to leave with a solid points cushion while many championship contenders struggled.
“Listen, I feel much better than I did coming into today,” said Hamlin, who is ranked third in the standings and 32 points above the cutoff line heading into the final race to set the field for the Nov. 7 title race at Phoenix Raceway. “Certainly, I can’t complain about that. We’re in a good spot. Just don’t make any big mistakes, we’ll be OK.”
With Kyle Larson having won the first two races in the Round of 8 (and three consecutive victories overall for the second time this season), there will be at least two championship berths decided on points at Martinsville Speedway.
HIGH HOPES: Those below cutline feel good about Martinsville
Hamlin and Elliott — both past winners on the 0.526-mile track in Southwest Virginia – are solid bets to make the title round again.
After a runner-up finish Sunday at Kansas, Elliott is ranked second behind Larson with a 34-point bulge on the cut line — though the Hendrick Motorsports driver says “I’m not sure any amount of points is safe. I think anyone can win next week, pretty much, so we need to be on it, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge.”
Elliott, who won the final two races last season at Martinsville and Phoenix to take the 2020 championship, was on his game at Kansas with his career-best ninth top-two finish this season.
Until scraping the Turn 2 wall with his No. 9 Chevrolet with five laps remaining, Elliott seemed the only threat to Larson, who led a race-high 130 of 267 laps en route to a series-high ninth victory this season.
“I was trying really hard obviously, and we were both just so tied to the wall there, it was going to be hard to pass him in clean air,” Elliott said. “I was trying to just stay close enough to where if he got checked up, maybe an opportunity might come my way, and then I ended up hitting the wall, and once I did that, it was kind of over.”
There are few in modern-era NASCAR who are as good as Larson at running the wall, which pleased Elliott by keeping pace on the high lane with his Hendrick teammate.
“He does a really good job at it, and obviously, he’s really, really good at what he does,” Elliott said. “I felt like we were pretty even with him there. Typically to stay that close, I was really pretty happy with that. As you run the wall like that, it’s hard to stay close for a period of time just because that’s the only option. There’s nowhere else to go.
“I thought we were within striking distance, and that’s where I was trying to stay, and just kept pushing and got a little closer, a little closer to him and ultimately just got close enough between him and the lapped cars off 2 just enough dirty air (and) got out of shape.”
Hamlin, who made the most of a “very average” day with his No. 11 Toyota, said conditions changed drastically after a brief storm passed over the speedway (causing a short red flag after the first 10 laps).
“Obviously, the wind was a huge game-changer off Turn 2, it was treacherous over there,” he said. “Your car would just take off. I probably was too slow at times just making sure that I kept my car out of the wall after I saw that many guys we were battling got in trouble. It just depended on the gusts, but really, too, it also depended on your line and how you took corner entry and how you came off to how bad it was going to take off on the exit.”
Virtually the only playoff driver who could race with reckless abandon was Larson, who already had qualified for the championship race with a victory last week at Texas Motor Speedway.
“Yeah, he doesn’t need an advantage with the car he has,” Hamlin said. “That thing is so fast, it’s crazy. I think if you’ve got nothing to lose and can run along the wall like him, certainly he’s going to be fast.”
Hamlin also didn’t have the speed to run with Larson during the first two stages. But as the car came to him, several playoff rivals (such as Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney) were running into trouble, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wasn’t as confident about pushing the envelope, either.
“Yeah, just when guys start dropping, you just think a little bit more about how close do you want to run to the wall,” Hamlin said. “Managing your risk on restarts. On top of that, we just didn’t have a good balanced car. So to come away with a top five, we got it so much better in Stage 3 than the first two stages, I’m just really happy we made some gains, but obviously also very happy that we don’t settle the championship on tracks like this.”
That’s a reference to Hendrick’s dominance on 550 horsepower tracks such as Kansas this season. With the season ending at two 750 horsepower tracks, the odds swing a bit more in favor of drivers such as Hamlin, who has five victories at Martinsville and is assured a top-five starting spot that will offer a good shot at stage points.
“You just see where you shake out,” Hamlin said. “We were fast in the spring, and we want to have a solid day like we had today.”