Friday 5: Dale Jr. breaks down playoff field heading into Martinsville

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Sunday’s Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway has the potential to be remembered along with such Cup playoff moments there as Jeff Gordon’s 2015 win, Denny Hamlin’s contact with Chase Elliott in 2017 and Joey Logano’s 2018 victory via bump-and-run on Martin Truex Jr.

Seven drivers remain in contention for the final three spots in the Cup championship race entering Sunday’s elimination race (2 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium). Only Kyle Larson has secured a spot in the Nov. 7 title race at Phoenix Raceway.

The drivers below the cutline have combined to win five of the last six Martinsville races.

“When you look at the guys … they all could run in the top five, top three,” NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Somebody is going to get moved. They’re going to have to move each other if they are all expected to run in the top three. There’s not enough room for all of them in there.

“I expect there to be some hurt feelings after this one.”

Earnhardt shared his views on what those seven drivers seeking a spot in the title event face at Martinsville.

Here’s what he said on each:

1. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin

The situation: Elliott enters 34 points above the cutline. Hamlin is 32 points above the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Elliott clinches a spot in the championship race by scoring 20 points if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance. Otherwise, he’ll need 22 points to clinch.

Hamlin clinches a spot by scoring 23 points if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance. He would need 24 points if Kyle Busch wins. In any other scenario, Hamlin needs 25 points to advance if there is a new winner from Ryan Blaney or another playoff driver lower in the standings. 

Track record: Elliott entered last year’s playoff race 25 points below the cutline and won to advance to the title race. He went on to claim his first series championship. Elliott finished second at Martinsville in the spring.

Hamlin is a five-time Martinsville winner, but his last victory there was in March 2015. He has four top-five finishes in his last six starts there.

Dale Jr. says: “I think they both go into a racetrack that they know they’re really good and they just have to hope that their worlds don’t collide like they have there in the past. They’re, obviously, both probably going to be running up toward the front in the top five most of the day.

“I think it would be important for both of them to always be on top of where they are in terms of points, so they know what risks not to take. … They might need a little more information this weekend from the crew chief, spotter, so that they’re always understanding where they are and what their situation is and do they need to press, do they need to not press.

“If there’s five laps left in a stage and you can’t get by this guy, let them know. … Don’t wreck yourself trying to catch this guy or burn your car up trying to get there. Things like that. The guy can dial it back a little bit. You save a little brake, be easy on the car. Just things like that would be helpful for them. … Otherwise, their cars should have plenty of pace.”

2. Kyle Busch

The situation: He is one point above the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Advances if he scores 54 points in a situation where there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance. If there is a new winner from Ryan Blaney or another playoff driver lower in the standings, Busch could clinch only with help.

Track record: He has two Martinsville wins. The most recent was in the 2017 playoffs. Busch has 10 top-10 finishes in the last 12 races at the track.

Dale Jr. says: “I think his situation is similar to Denny and Chase, where you’ve just got to give him information all race long as to who he’s racing, who he needs to worry about, and he can adjust how hard he’s pushing. It’s all going to come down the last 100 laps and who has the track position and who can protect that track position.

“You’ve got to run hard all race. You’ve got to try your hardest to get into that top three and stay there. If your car won’t do it, in his case, if he’s concerned about his car’s performance and doesn’t think he can run as well as some of these guys he’s got to beat, he’s going to have to make some things happen at the end of that race.”

3. Ryan Blaney

The situation: Enters one point below the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Would clinch with 55 points (out of a maximum 60) if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance to the next round. If Kyle Busch or another driver lower in the playoff standings wins, Blaney would need help to advance.

Track record: Blaney, who is winless at Martinsville, says he felt he had the best car in each of the last three races there. He finished second in both races last year and was 11th in the spring (he won both stages). In each of those three races, he had a pit road penalty (speeding, running over equipment and crew member over the wall too soon).

Dale Jr. says: “I think that he was in a great mental state, at least going into Kansas, and he was doing everything right in that race. It was showing me that maybe he’s in a good place mentally.

“I guess the one thing I would be worried about is, is he going into this race in panic mode when it’s not necessarily time to panic? Will he possibly get himself in trouble when he really doesn’t need to get himself in trouble because he thinks it’s time to panic, he thinks he’s got to do too much? That would be my concern with him.

“Did that issue at the end of Kansas mess with his psyche, his mental toughness and his ability to regroup, refocus, go into this race and know he can just go in there and check this box, this box, this box and be good? Not go in there and feel like he’s got to set the world on fire, and that he has the world on his shoulders because he’s young.

“He’s a guy that we’ve never really seen in this position before, and will he carry that weight? He’s done it so far. He’s kind of been under the radar. He was in a great position up until he gets hit at Kansas.

“He was doing all the things right like a veteran. He does have a tendency to lose his temper and get angry and snap, but he seems to have a better control of that. I will be curious to see if he’s driving over his head out of the gate or does he have his head on straight.”

4. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski

The situation: Truex is three points below the cutline. Keselowski is six points below the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Truex can clinch with 55 if there is a repeat winner or a win by a driver who cannot advance to the next round. If Kyle Busch or another driver lower in the playoff standings wins, Truex would need help to advance. Keselowski can only clinch with help beyond a win.

Track record: Truex has won three of the last four Martinsville races. He won in April, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin with 16 laps to go.

Keselowski has two Martinsville wins. His most recent victory there came in March 2019. He has finished in the top five in nine of the last 11 races at the short track.

Dale Jr. says on Truex: “I think they’ll be just as strong. … I don’t think I would be too quick to judging off the rest of the year and say that he’s going to go in there and not perform the way he’s performed in the past. I expect him to be top three, if not winning the race.

Dale Jr. says on Keselowski: “I don’t think about this when I think about Blaney, but when I think about Brad, I think about their brake problems. I think Brad is going to have to push harder, and he probably will. Will their car be able to do what Brad needs it to do all day? I just don’t know if it will.

“He’s been executing and getting these good top-10 finishes and good stage points, but that’s not going to be enough this weekend. He’s got to do more, and I don’t know if the car has the pace, and I don’t know if it has the durability to do what he’s going to have to do with it.

“Blaney might have enough pace to where he doesn’t have to beat the car up. Brad might have to run a little harder, brake a little harder, beat on that car and test the car throughout the event a little more. That could mean that it doesn’t have the braking performance at the end of the race and things like that that he needs.”

5. Joey Logano

The situation: He is 26 points below the cutline.

What it will take to clinch (beyond a win): Logano can clinch only with help beyond a win.

Track record: He has one Martinsville win, which came in the 2018 playoffs. Logano has six top 10s in the last seven races at the short track.

Dale Jr. says: “He’s one of the guys that I think is most prepared mentally for these type of things. He handles the pressure of the playoffs differently and better than 95% of the drivers in the series would.

“These types of situations – where your back is against the wall and there’s only one option – he excels. Somehow. I don’t know what it is about his personality. Great guy off the racetrack, but he’s a bulldog on the racetrack when he has to be and he needs to be, and he doesn’t apologize.”

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