Martinsville will determine who joins Kyle Larson in Championship 4

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Joey Logano doesn’t have a great chance to qualify as one of the four drivers who will compete for the championship Nov. 7 at Phoenix.

But he still has a chance to earn his second Cup title, and in some ways, that’s all he can ask for. Sitting 26 points behind the cutoff, he enters the elimination race on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in a likely must-win situation.

“It’s better than not having a shot at it,” Logano said. “If we didn’t have the win option, we’d be scratching our heads trying to figure out how we’d get enough points to point our way in.

“In this case, you’re just looking at winning and you’re in. You have a shot all the way to the end of this thing if you’re in it.”

It will be up to the drivers to relish the opportunity to perform with their backs against the wall in the most pressure-packed race of the season Sunday. Chase Elliott did it last year, winning at Martinsville to qualify for the championship and then winning the following week at Phoenix to capture the title.

“It just really taught us a good lesson,” Elliott said. “It wasn’t until Martinsville that we were able to get through. … Just taking that lesson that it’s not over until it’s over, and anything can happen.

“There is never a safe place with points unless you have a win.”

Only one driver has qualified to be one of the four championship contenders. Kyle Larson earned an automatic spot by winning the first race of the round at Texas and then kept anyone else from earning an automatic spot by winning Sunday at Kansas.

Elliott, who finished second at Martinsville in the spring, is 34 points up on the cutoff and would qualify with a 15th-place finish, no matter what anyone else does. Denny Hamlin is 32 points up on the cutoff and is in with a 12th-place finish.

Those drivers likely could finish much worse — especially if they earn stage points — and still advance.

But four drivers, in addition to Logano, are in a fight for what likely will be the final spot. Kyle Busch enters just one point ahead of Ryan Blaney, three points ahead of Martin Truex Jr. and six points ahead of Brad Keselowski.

“There’s still a shot, but it’s just going to be tough,” said Busch, who was 10th at Martinsville in April. “It’s going to be a hard-fought dog fight for that final spot.”

Truex won the April race at Martinsville, and many would look at him as a favorite.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “If we had to pick a track to go minus-3 [in the standings], it should be a good one. We will have a good starting spot and kind of just do what we can do there.

“We need to get a lot of stage points. … Coming into [Kansas], I was thinking if we were in this position, we would be in good shape.”

Truex will start fourth, on the outside of Row 2 at Martinsville. Larson will be on the pole with Elliott on the front row. Hamlin and Truex will make up the second row. Logano and Keselowski are in the third row, and Busch and Blaney in the fourth row.

But Blaney has an argument that he should be the favorite. He led 157 laps at Martinsville in April, but a hiccup on pit road ended his chance for the win. He also is coming off a frustrating Kansas, where he was wrecked (accidentally) by Austin Dillon.

“Everyone’s confidence level, our heads are up right now,” Blaney said prior to the race Sunday. And he has no reason to hang his head, as he has been the most consistent Penske performer this season.

Keselowski and Logano have had more mercurial seasons. Keselowski is in his final year at Penske, as he will leave for a driver and co-owner role at Roush Fenway Racing next season.

“It’s going to be a barn burner,” said Keselowski, who was involved in a wreck at Martinsville in April. “Normally we run very well there, and I’m excited about it.”

Logano was sixth at Martinsville in April. Does he have five positions to make it happen?

“Martinsville was a long time ago,” he said. “A lot of things have changed since then. It’s been a good track for [our team]. Win, and you’re in.”

For Keselowski, advancing to the title round after being down entering Martinsville would be a signature moment in his Penske career, one that would be dwarfed only by his 2012 Cup championship.

“Ultimately we still control our destiny if we win the race or score enough stage points and have a good finish,” Keselowski said.

“With that in mind, let’s go have fun.”

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Playoff meter

Thinking out loud

This was the last race for the 550 horsepower package for this year and the current car. But NASCAR will continue to restrict airflow through engines at the intermediate tracks (ovals bigger than 1.4 miles) to run at 550 horsepower.

The limited horsepower makes it a little bit of a drafting game, and NASCAR hopes that running at 550 horsepower will attract new manufacturers.

It can be a long-term process to attract a manufacturer, but it needs to happen because it is frustrating to see this turn into a track-position game. A new manufacturer, admittedly, could be a game-changer as far as parity and depth in the field.

Hopefully the Next Gen car will race better and there won’t be as many frustrating 550 horsepower races. NASCAR can’t afford to run with such limited horsepower and not have it produce significant results on a weekly basis.

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Stat of note

Larson has had two three-race win streaks this year. The most recent driver to have at least two three-race win streaks in a season was Dale Earnhardt in 1987.

They said it

“I wish Rick was here. … For how everything that worked out for me, there had to be some bit of help there, for sure.” — Kyle Larson after winning on the 17th anniversary of the Hendrick plane crash

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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