NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Martinsville NASCAR Playoff Race

What happened?

Alex Bowman won the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Sunday (Oct. 31) after bumping Denny Hamlin out of the way and surviving an overtime restart. Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron rounded out the top-five finishers.

Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will compete for the NASCAR Cup Series championship next Sunday, while Busch, Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney were eliminated.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson pulled ahead to start and paced the field for 55 laps until Elliott overtook his teammate. Just a few laps later, the competition caution flag flew.

Larson exited the pits ahead of Elliott, and he led on the restart for several laps until another caution hit. This time it was a wreck involving Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman and Michael McDowell.

Larson again led on the restart, but Elliott got it back on lap 85 and he dominated for the next portion of the race. Deeper in the field, Blaney and Austin Dillon made contact and both suffered damage. Blaney fell back through the field and finished the first stage well outside the top 10.

Up front, Elliott held on to win the first stage over Larson and Truex.

Larson was caught speeding on pit road, giving Elliott the lead again to begin stage two. Elliott controlled the race under green until lap 197 when Dillon cut a right front tire and got into the wall.

Truex passed Elliott on pit road, giving him the top spot on the restart with 57 to go in stage two. Elliott didn’t let him hold it for long, however, taking the lead on the outside lane.

Elliott stayed out front for his second straight stage win, one that officially clinched his spot in the Championship 4.

Elliott and Bowman led on the restart with 231 laps to go, and they stayed in that order until there were 190 laps remaining. That’s when Josh Bilicki spun after contact with Corey LaJoie.

The next run lasted only four laps until Bilicki and Quin Houff had an incident. Houff was penalized five laps for wrecking Bilicki under yellow within range of a safety vehicle.

The short runs continued over the next several sequences, where four straight runs lasted less than 20 laps. Elliott passed Logano, who stayed out under one of the cautions, for the lead at lap 351. Even though these were short stints, Bowman appeared to be the only driver who could stay with Elliott early in the final stage.

Strategies were mixed on a caution with 122 laps to go, as Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer stayed out and Elliott was pushed to fourth. He chose wrong on the restart, while Truex and Hamlin overtook the slower cars to gain the lead spots. Hamlin took control with 112 laps to go as Elliott struggled in traffic.

With 64 laps remaining, Dillon again got in the wall due to a flat right front tire to bring out a caution. Hamlin held the lead on pit road and through the restart as Bowman hounded him. After the restart, with 50 to go, there was a stack-up mid-pack and Truex suffered major damage. Just a few laps later, while Truex nursed his left-front fender, Keselowski — in a must-win situation — spun Elliott while battling for third.

On another restart with 34 to go, Truex forced it three-wide going for second and suffered more damage. Several laps later, he was in the wall when a timely caution came out for Ryan Preece.

The next restart with 23 to go saw Hamlin and Bowman duking it out for the lead. Hamlin had the advantage, running a slightly higher line to hold off the faster Bowman. With six laps to go, Bowman had enough. He got inside Hamlin and bodied him out of the way in the middle of the corner.

That led to an overtime restart, where Bowman led on the inside and was surrounded by three drivers needing a win (Busch in second, Keselowski in third, Truex in fourth). Miraculously, Bowman got away from the trio so they couldn’t bump him and he held on for the victory.

The win was Bowman’s fourth of the season, sixth of his career and first at Martinsville. After the race, Hamlin interrupted Bowman’s celebration by giving him the double bird, parking next to his burnout. Keselowski also spun Busch in turn 1 after the checkered flag.

Who stood out?

For all the talk about Bowman being the fourth best Hendrick driver, he has more wins than Elliott and Byron combined this season. OK, looking at every statistic, it’s clear that Bowman has been fourth of four at HMS this year. Every statistic besides one, that is: wins. He has four of them, compared to just two for Elliott and one for Byron. Bowman led less than 20 laps in three of his four victories, so there was clearly some luck involved. But he’s been in a position to capitalize — you have to credit him for that, even if Hamlin won’t.

Next season, Bowman absolutely needs more consistency. Despite setting career highs in wins (four), top fives (eight) and top 10s (16), Bowman has seven finishes outside the top 25. He finally has full sponsor support; now, it’s time to deliver as consistently as his teammates have.

Truex rallied after picking up late damage, and now he’ll race for a title at the track where he won in March. I was dumbfounded when Truex didn’t pit after picking up heavy damage. Apparently, that’s why I’m not a driver or crew chief, because he rallied the car into position and took advantage on the last restart.

Looking ahead, Truex should be as confident as anyone at Phoenix. All four of his wins this year have been with the 750-horsepower package, including the first Phoenix race. It certainly hasn’t been his most consistent season — Truex is on pace for his worst average finish since 2016 — but it might be the right driver-track combination to win his second title.

Elliott’s day didn’t end how it probably should have, but he showed he has the 750-HP speed to win next week. After contact with Keselowski, he finished 16th. That’s not the whole story, though. Elliott led a race-high 289 laps after leading just 232 combined in the first eight playoff races. He also led 129 laps at Bristol before his feud with Harvick. The 750-HP speed is there; Elliott and his team just haven’t been able to complete races this season. It only takes one complete race next week to win another championship, and that’s well within reach after gaining valuable experience last year. 

Who fell flat?

Hamlin’s priorities were out of order after the race on Sunday. I get it: every driver wants to win every race. But Hamlin made the Championship 4, and he could win that elusive first title next week. There’s no need to risk potential penalties by messing with Bowman after the race. Keeping emotions in check seems to be an issue with Hamlin, where he is focused on others rather than his own mission.

At Phoenix, Hamlin will definitely be capable of winning. He was fourth of the four playoff drivers there last year, and he improved to third while leading 33 laps in the first race this year. The fear is that Truex might have the edge between these Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. It would’ve actually been better for Hamlin if Keselowski secured the final spot over his stablemate.

See also
Up to Speed: Denny Hamlin Needs to Let it Go

Perhaps the biggest shock at Martinsville, Blaney was a total non-factor from the drop of the green flag. The Paperclip has typically been one of Blaney’s best tracks, with four top fives in his last five starts entering today. The No. 12 just didn’t have it on Sunday, struggling with speed all race and frequently being used as a punching bag in traffic. Many predicted a career-defining, Elliott-type Martinsville victory for Blaney. Instead, he leaves without making the Championship 4 for the sixth straight year to start his career.

Similar to his teammate, Logano just didn’t have the car when he needed it most. He and Blaney are stepping into the leadership role at Team Penske next year with Keselowski’s departure. Logano has never replicated his six-win 2015 campaign, failing to capture more than three race wins in a season over the last six years. Logano got hot at the right time in 2018 to win the championship, but he was probably the fourth-best driver that season. Remember the “Big Three and me” comments? He feels like a perennial winner, but the truth is Logano has fallen off in recent seasons compared to his standards.

Without Keselowski’s racing intelligence to lean on next year, the dropoff could continue at Penske in the Next Gen era. It’ll be interesting to monitor how a Logano- and Blaney-led organization operates, as Keselowski has been the clear No. 1 — on and off the track — since his arrival.

What did this race prove?

The best drivers from this season will be fighting for a title next week — and that’s good for the sport. The biggest criticism of this playoff format has been that the best driver doesn’t always win. While that could still happen this year, it’s important to note that none of the four don’t belong. Here’s a look at each driver, with their series rank listed in parentheses:

  • Larson: 9 wins (first), 19 top fives (first), 25 top 10s (first), 2,474 laps led (first)
  • Hamlin: 2 wins (tied for fifth), 18 top fives (second), 24 top 10s (second), 1,502 laps led (second)
  • Elliott: 2 wins (tied for fifth), 14 top fives (tied for third), 20 top 10s (tied for fifth), 858 laps led (third)
  • Truex: 4 wins (tied for second), 12 top fives (tied for fifth), 19 top 10s (tied for seventh), 793 laps led (fourth)

It’s clear to me these are the four most deserving drivers this season. You could make an argument for Kyle Busch or Blaney, but I think they’ve been a notch below these four. Even though Larson is head and shoulders above the entire field, there is at least solace in knowing the champion won’t be a complete fluke. While Larson is still the favorite, in my opinion, I wouldn’t be surprised by any of the four winning.

Keep Martinsville as the penultimate race forever. I’m all for schedule changes. I’ve loved some recent moves — adding road courses, the Daytona regular season finale, etc. This change has been my favorite, and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Over the last two years, we’ve had some epic Martinsville moments. This year was even better, in my opinion (spoiler alert). I can’t get enough of short track elimination races and moving Martinsville and Bristol to those spots has been perfect. A championship race at Martinsville might sound fun, but I don’t really want a title race decided by wrecking. Let’s leave this here and make it a tradition forever.

Paint scheme of the race

Anthony Alfredo hasn’t had the rookie season he hoped for. Maybe winning the esteemed paint scheme of the race award at Martinsville will cheer him up? OK, probably not. Still, this Halloween-themed No. 38 DUDE Wipes Ford was the best on the grid this weekend:

Better than last time?

The Martinsville playoff race rarely disappoints, and last year was no different. It had playoff drama involving nine-race winner Kevin Harvick, who struggled all day. It had a winner from outside the cutoff in Elliott, who led a race-high 236 laps and overcame a near-penalty for his crew being over the wall too soon. Elliott cruised to a big victory after a long green flag run to end the race while Harvick unsuccessfully tried to wreck Kyle Busch to make the Championship 4.

For the first 400 laps or so this year, I was ready to give 2020 the edge. Then, well, you know what happened. Once Elliott got shuffled out of the lead, the points bubble tightened and the intensity ratcheted up. Between the narrow points battle between three former champions and Bowman’s bump-and-run, I’ll take 2021 over 2020.

Playoff picture

Elliott joined Larson in the Championship 4 after winning the first two stages at Martinsville. That left two spots open, and boy did the points battle deliver in the final 50 laps.

Hamlin (+8) and Truex (+3) ended up grabbing the final two spots, while Busch (-3) and Keselowski (-8) narrowly missed the cut. Blaney (-20) and Logano (-42) finished seventh and eighth in the round, respectively. Now, points are off the table for the top four. Whoever crosses the finish line first next Sunday will be the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Here’s the full standings entering Phoenix:

What’s next?

We’ve sadly reached the end of the 2021 NASCAR season. The NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway is set for Sunday (Nov. 7) at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. It will be the second time Phoenix hosts the title race after Elliott’s victory last season.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: MARTINSVILLE

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Bill B

Martinsville never disappoints. I could argue either way whether or not it is a good track to set the final 4, but it is what it is. A few too many cautions in the last 50 laps but that isn’t unusual.
I almost got the final 4 I’d hoped for, too bad Blaney didn’t have a better car and Hamlin didn’t spend more time around Dillon. I agree that the remaining four drivers are all legitimate championship contenders but Larson should be the champion based on the stats from the first 35 races.

JT

I really enjoyed this race. It was just a bit surprising that Bowman, a non-“playoff” driver, turned Hamlin (a playoff driver) for the win, but that’s racing at Martinsville – It’s move out, or get moved out of the way…

Give props to Martin Truex, Jr. for finding a way into the Final 4 after being bounced around like a Pachinko machine ball in the latter laps. Glad to see him make the cut.

Kurt Smith

I will take the worst Martinsville race over the best race at about ten tracks on the NASCAR schedule. They should have four races at Martinsville every year. There’s drivers battling everywhere all through the race and there’s always drama at the end. I love Bristol too, but Martinsville is stock car racing at its absolute best.

I agree, it’s the four best drivers in the finals. Truex and Busch were about evenly matched this year but the #18 team just couldn’t find the handle at a lot of tracks and Kyle made mistakes trying to overcompensate. It was impressive winning with only fourth gear at Pocono though.

Not a fan of Hamlin but he was right to be p***ed. I don’t care how many times Dale Jr. says it’s the prerogative of non-playoff drivers to race hard against playoff drivers. The non-playoff drivers shouldn’t be forcing the issue if they can’t get by clean. If Bowman’s in a championship hunt in the future, Hamlin would be right to take him out of it.

Kevin in SoCal

Its 50/50 on whether Bowman bumped Hamlin on purpose or if the car got away from him.

Either way, its 100% karma for Hamlin after he bumped Elliott out of the way a couple years ago at Martinsville.

WJW Motorsports

Your last paragraph explains exactly why it’s utter stupidity to have an elimination style tourni – where the eliminated still get to be out on the field playing after they’ve been eliminated, to determine a motorsports champion. If the other guys out there are required to do anything other than race their arses off, they should not be out there at all.

Bill B

So the other 36 guys out there should just ride around and look pretty creating obstacles for the other 8 guys to avoid. How about we just send them home and have 8 cars on the track.
I am going to turn this around. If I were not a contender I would always be willing to push the limit further than those with more to lose. So someone like Logano that had no other way than to win, he would be willing to push it to the limit. But someone like Hamlin only needed a 2nd place finish to be in the championship 4. So what kind of an idiot pushes it to the limit and risks elimination when all they need is a 2nd? Hamlin should be ashamed for being so stupid. Someone on his team needed to slap him and remind him that he only needed to finish 2nd.
Johnson did the same thing at the Charlotte roval and ended up missing the next round. At what point should common sense override the will to win?

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
Echo

Bowman’s publicity department already selling “Hack” t shirts on his web site $24.95 lmao

DoninAjax

Any driver at Phoenix other than the Focused Four will spend the event just riding around and might as well not be there. They’re just doing what they were told in the driver’s meeting.

Carl D.

Speaking of paint schemes, did you see the John 5 paint scheme on Sam Mayer’s Xfinity car? Paint scheme of the entire weekend.

Tom B

Martinsville is 4 laps and a caution. That’s not exciting to me. You could of paid off your mortgage betting on Alex Bowman to win, +$4000 odds.

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