After Playoff Elimination, What's Next For Hamlin, Truex, Buescher and Reddick?
Martinsville Speedway marked the end of the road for the championship hopes of Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Chris Buescher, and Tyler Reddick. After playoff elimination, what's next for the four drivers and their teams?
At the conclusion of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the 2023 Championship 4 field was officially set. Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and William Byron will battle for a championship in Phoenix.
While the focus is on the four drivers who advanced to the championship race, the four drivers and teams that were bounced from the Playoffs in the Round of 8 have a lot to race for this weekend as well, as they'll look to build momentum for the 2024 season.
Photo Credit: Gavin Baker, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing
Denny Hamlin (8 points shy of advancing)
It was a heartbreaking exit from the Playoffs for Denny Hamlin, who climbed from his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry with tears welling up in his eyes after Sunday's race.
Hamlin knew he had shown incredible strength this season. And at the age of 42, the 51-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner knows he has more years behind him than ahead of him at this point, and this was a chance for him to finally snag the one thing that has eluded him throughout his career -- the NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Crew Chief Chris Gabehart and the No. 11 team provided him with an excellent car for Sunday's race, and Hamlin drove a great race. Ultimately, Ryan Blaney's No. 12 car was just a little better overall, and Hamlin came up just shy of the race win that he needed to advance.
"I still love it so much because every week I feel like I got a shot to win. That's what fuels my passion, even at my age, to keep doing this," Hamlin explained after his third-place run. "I'm with the team that I got that gives me such fast cars every week and gives me a chance to continue to pile on those stats before the end of my career. It's not over by any means. We got a long way to go.
"Really happy about the year in general. I thought substantially faster this year at all racetracks than what we were last year. It's racing, right? This is the Playoffs. You got a three-race season. The 12 (Ryan Blaney) car showed up this round, right? He deserves to be in that Final 4. The performance they had today was phenomenal."
What's Next: Hamlin will return as the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in 2024, and there are no major changes expected within the program for the team.
Hamlin has emerged as one of the most outspoken voices in the garage, and he seems to still be very much at the top of his game despite being over the 40-year-old mark. With three consecutive Championship 4 appearances between 2019 and 2021, it seemed like Hamlin was knocking on the door of his first NASCAR Cup Series title.
But after his Playoff exit on Sunday, Hamlin has now failed to make the Championship 4 two seasons in a row. While Hamlin was eliminated due to Ross Chastain's wild 'Hail Melon' move at Martinsville last year, this year he was done in by a part failure at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which put him in a hole heading into the final race of the Round of 8.
If Hamlin can just avoid oddities in the 2024 Playoffs, he's a good bet to make it back to the Championship 4.
Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing
Martin Truex Jr. (28 points shy of advancing)
For Martin Truex Jr., and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team, the 2023 season was a strange one. They were among the class of the field during the regular season as Truex racked up three wins and scored the regular-season championship. Confidence was high for the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
However, once the Playoffs began, the wheels fell off for Truex and his team.
Over the nine races that made up the Round of 16, Round of 12, and Round of 8 of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Truex only recorded one top-10 finish (a ninth-place effort at Las Vegas) and two top-15 finishes.
While Truex's regular-season performance and Playoff Points accumulated were enough to squeak him through the Round of 16, and the Round of 12, the Playoff push ended with a 12th-place effort at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
Truex had one of the best cars in the race, as he sat on the pole and led the opening 47 laps, but ultimately, Truex was done in by a pit road speeding penalty.
"We gave it a hell of an effort," Truex explained. "I felt like we had a really strong car. I don't think we could have beat the 12 (Ryan Blaney). He was really, really strong. We were definitely close. Something to work on for next time. Really disappointed. I mean, I thought I was well under speed leaving that box. Clearly, we were speeding, so we have something to look at there. It's devastating. That's racing.”
What's Next: It was a true tale of two seasons for Truex and his No. 19 team. But while Truex and his team experienced a frustrating end to their championship hopes, the driver and his team definitely improved from an, even more, head-scratching 2022 campaign, where Truex failed to win a race and make the Playoffs for the first time since 2014.
It was a great bounce-back year, which ultimately fell flat once the Playoffs began.
Truex grew quite testy on the radio with his crew chief James Small, and in regards to his pit crew's performance throughout the Playoffs, but ultimately, it was an error on pit road by Truex at Martinsville that ended their hopes.
If Truex and his team can shore up their errors that cropped up in the Playoffs, they've shown that when they are on, they're among the very best in the garage. After much speculation about possible retirement, Truex announced his return to the No. 19 team for the 2024 season in August. At this time, there haven't been any announced changes for the team for next season.
Photo Credit: Rusty Jarrett, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing
Tyler Reddick (43 points shy of advancing)
While Tyler Reddick's exit from the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs came after a disappointing 26th-place run at Martinsville Speedway, the 27-year-old driver took another step forward in his NASCAR Cup Series career in his first season with 23XI Racing.
Reddick was left red in the face after a hot day, with less than ideal conditions in his car Sunday at Martinsville.
“It was a tough day," Reddick said of the Martinsville race. "We were having issues with voltage, and some of the cooling systems were cutting in and out. It got really, really hot – that is for sure, but it wasn’t going to waver my willingness to drive really, really hard there.
"I was really hoping to get something more out of our day and get The Beast Unleashed Toyota Camry TRD into the Championship 4, but handling wasn’t our friend today. We really, really struggled with multiple issues in the corners – just made for a long day. Qualifying better was really important for us, but still – we took a few stabs at it to get some track position and our car just wasn’t doing the things we needed it to today.”
While Sunday at Martinsville was a struggle, the season overall was not. Reddick picked up two more wins in 2023 to bring his career total to five, and he made a sustained run through the Playoffs to the Round of 8.
Making it to the Round of 8 was a great accomplishment.
Reddick worked his way into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2021, and 2022, but in both seasons, he was bounced from the Playoffs in the Round of 16. While the effort in 2023 didn't ultimately result in a championship, Reddick and the No. 45 23XI Racing team have to have confidence that they are trending toward another solid campaign in 2024.
What's Next: Continual growth for Reddick as a driver, and 23XI Racing as a whole has to be the focus. 23XI Racing enjoyed its best season in its existence, but the team has only been around for three seasons. The team will just continue to get stronger, and stronger as the years go on.
Despite only having four years of experience in the NASCAR Cup Series, Reddick has emerged as one of the brightest drivers on road courses in the NASCAR Cup Series, and he is among the very best at turning laps in the high line at intermediate ovals like Homestead, and Darlington.
If Reddick can unlock the keys to victory at short flat ovals like Martinsville, and Richmond, the sky will be the limit.
The young driver has shown a penchant for having strength at Phoenix Raceway in the past, so if he can make it into the Championship 4 next season, Reddick will be a potential favorite to win the title.
Photo Credit: Ben Earp, NKP, Courtesy of Ford Performance
Chris Buescher (58 points shy of advancing)
2023 was the coming out party for Chris Buescher and the RFK Racing team as a whole. While the season didn't end with a Championship 4 appearance, the driver and team showed they are a true emerging contender and that you can't sleep on them going forward.
Buescher, who had two career NASCAR Cup Series wins through his first seven seasons, racked up three wins this year and he did it at three drastically different race tracks -- Richmond (short track), Michigan (2-mile oval), and Daytona (Superspeedway).
Along the way, Buescher reached career-high totals in top-fives with eight (previous best was three), top-10s with 16 (previous best was 10), laps led with 237 (previous best was 194), and he's on pace to eclipse his career-best average start (15.8) and average finish (17.3) as his average start with one race left is 14.9, and his average finish in 2023 is 12.3.
Buescher also leads the series with 29 top-20 finishes through 35 races, and he has been running at the finish of all but one race this year.
It was a solid season, and the driver of the No. 17 Ford Mustang and his team were rewarded with a sustained Playoff run, which came to an end with a respectable eighth-place finish at Martinsville.
“It was a fantastic job all around,” Buescher said after Sunday's race at the paperclip. “We needed a little bit more obviously to win this thing and move on. We knew that was going to be the case, but I’m extremely proud of our year all things considered. We knew coming into this that as long as I felt like I got out of the car and couldn’t walk anymore and nobody felt like we left anything on the table, then it’s all something to be proud of and I certainly am. It’s a bummer we don’t get to go to the next round, but we’ll take what we’ve done from this year, stack it up and hit the ground running for next season.”
What's Next: The RFK Racing team has excelled through excellent teamwork with its No. 6 and No. 17 teams. When one runs well, the other is usually right there with them. If the team can keep being a cohesive unit, there is no telling what they can accomplish.
But if 2023 was any preview, Buescher and RFK are a juggernaut waiting to be unleashed on the NASCAR Cup Series.
If Buescher and his teammate Brad Keselowski can get out of the gates strong again next season expect them both to make the Playoffs again, and the expectation for Buescher is for multiple race wins.
Featured Photo Credit: Lesley Ann Miller, LAT Images, Courtesy of Toyota Racing