Martinsville storylines: Keep it together

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One can argue that Ryan Blaney should have a Martinsville grandfather clock in his possession right now.

The Team Penske driver has been a contender to win in his last three visits to the Virginia half-mile track. But he came away empty-handed each time.

The common denominator in those setbacks? Pit road.

In the June 2020 race at Martinsville, Blaney was leading when a caution came out on Lap 327. During subsequent pit stops, a member of his No. 12 crew went over the wall too soon and Blaney was sent to the rear. He climbed all the way back to second with less than 50 laps to go but went no further.

When the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Martinsville that November, Blaney rallied from an early pit road speeding penalty and was running second at the race’s final caution with 59 laps to go. But in the pits, he lost two spots and took the final restart in fifth (one car stayed out to inherit the lead). Again, Blaney got up to second, but came up short.

Then came this past April’s race at Martinsville, where Blaney won both stages and appeared set to fight Denny Hamlin for the win. But on Blaney’s final pit stop under caution with 47 laps to go, he ran over his air hose and took the pit gun with him as he left his stall.

The subsequent penalty sent him to the rear for the restart. Blaney finished 11th. As for Hamlin, he ultimately failed to hold off winner Martin Truex Jr. in the final green flag run to the finish.

As Martinsville hosts Sunday’s Cup playoff Round of 8 elimination race (2 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium), Blaney and his No. 12 team are in a battle among those on the cutline seeking to reach the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.

Kyle Busch holds the final transfer spot by a point over Blaney. Truex, winner of three of the last four Martinsville races, is three points back. Blaney’s teammate, Keselowski, is six points back.

All of them have multiple paths to get to Phoenix. As for Blaney, setbacks aside, he’s been heating up at Martinsville. He’s recorded five top-five finishes in his last seven races there. Going deeper, he’s also picked up three stage wins and scored in 15 of 18 stages at Martinsville.

That’s not bad considering how chaotic that track can be. But he and his team can ill afford another costly mistake Sunday to ruin their title hopes.

Wide open

For the first time since the 2017 season, all Championship 4 spots are up for grabs in the NASCAR Xfinity Series entering its final playoff elimination race.

That season, Christopher Bell (on his way to a Truck Series title) and Erik Jones (finishing his Cup rookie season) won the first two races in the Round of 8 to set up the elimination race at Phoenix Raceway. At that juncture, Elliott Sadler led the playoff standings with a 29-point cushion above the cutline.

Four years later, Phoenix now hosts the title finale (Nov. 6). And entering Saturday night’s elimination race at Martinsville (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), two drivers hold bigger points buffers than Sadler. Reigning series champion Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger are both at +47.

Below them, but still above the cutline, are Justin Allgaier (+9) and Daniel Hemric (+7). Justin Haley (-7) has a manageable deficit, while Noah Gragson (-24), Brandon Jones (-40) and Harrison Burton (-51) likely need to win Saturday in order to reach Phoenix.

Gragson and Burton were the biggest losers last week at Kansas Speedway. Contact between Burton and Sam Mayer sent Burton into the wall while collecting Gragson. The incident cost Gragson 26 points to the cutline and Burton 30 points to the cutline.

But there is hope for both drivers.

Gragson didn’t get the clean day at Kansas that he’d hoped for, but said entering last week’s race that he felt his No. 9 JR Motorsports team had a “pretty good package” for Martinsville. Gragson has finished third and second there in his first two Xfinity starts.

He’s also posted an average finish of fifth across the three short track races this season, best among the remaining playoff drivers.

As for Burton, he won last year’s Martinsville playoff race after being eliminated from title contention in the opening Round of 12. He’s the only remaining playoff driver this season with a previous Martinsville win.

“We’re in a tough situation,” Burton said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “We had a really great car at Kansas contending for the win there and ended up getting in a crash that put us in a bad spot. So now we know we have to win to get into the Championship 4, which we believe we’re capable of. We’ve shown that we’re capable of it at Martinsville in particular… Just time to go get after it, have at it.

“This is going to be fun. These are the situations that — you know, there’s no great comeback without a setback at first. I’ve got a great group of guys around me, great leadership. (Crew chief) Jason Ratcliff has been in this situation before, having to win at Phoenix to have a chance for a championship – and him and Christopher (Bell) got it done, so I don’t see why we can’t get it done, either.”

Break’s over

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series hosts the first of this weekend’s playoff elimination races at Martinsville on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

Like the Xfinity Series, all Championship 4 spots will be decided ahead of the Trucks’ Nov. 5 season finale at Phoenix.

When we last saw the Trucks on Oct. 2 at Talladega, playoff contender John Hunter Nemechek missed out on clinching a Championship 4 berth.

Nemechek was leading on the last lap of overtime when he and Tate Fogleman made contact coming to the checkered flag. Nemechek went spinning as Fogleman held on to earn his first career Truck win – only to be immediately spun himself by contact from another competitor.

Entering Saturday, Nemechek and Ben Rhodes have the clearest paths to reaching the title race in Phoenix. Nemechek, the regular-season champion, has a 36-point cushion above the cutline. Rhodes is at +35.

The final two transfer spots may be the most hotly contested. Three-time Truck Series champion Matt Crafton (+10) and reigning Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed (+5) are not far above the cutline, while Stewart Friesen (-5) is not far below it.

Behind Friesen are Chandler Smith (-34), Carson Hocevar (-37) and Zane Smith (-40). They all likely need a win to advance.

Last fall’s Truck playoff race at Martinsville had two spots in the Championship 4 up for grabs after Creed and Brett Moffitt previously advanced there with wins in the Round of 8.

Grant Enfinger won the race to earn an automatic advance, while Zane Smith’s third-place finish was enough to claim the last transfer spot by three points over Crafton.