Cutoff Race Will Present No Shortage of Drama

Track position will be key and stage points could determine the Final Four.


hero image for Cutoff Race Will Present No Shortage of Drama

Here we are again for Christopher Bell, facing a must-win scenario in the final race of a round in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but this one is to advance into the Big One.

The Championship Race.

Bell won last month at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL to advance into the Round of 8 but was dealt another bad hand when he was caught up in Bubba Wallace retaliating against Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

A middling performance the next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway results in déjà vu this weekend at Martinsville Speedway -- needing nothing short of a win to survive and advance.

"No matter what the outcome is, it's a season I'm proud of," Bell said earlier this week. "Yeah, the Vegas race wasn't good for us, but when we left, we weren't facing a must win situation so we could have performed better at Homestead and made it a much different situation today.

"We didn't perform that well and the lesson is that we need to execute better to get playoff points in the regular season and target the race tracks we can improve at next season."

First a refresher for where things stand:

Joey Logano Adv.
Ross Chastain +19
Chase Elliott +11
William Byron +5
Denny Hamlin -5
Ryan Blaney -18
Christopher Bell -33
Chase Briscoe -44

Despite having so many write him off due to a lack of playoff experience or the potential for retaliation over summer transgressions, Ross Chastain is in incredible position to advance to the championship race. His two second place results in this round also means he owns the tiebreaker should that be necessary on Sunday night.

"I feel like that no matter what, this season is going to be a success, but in the moments where I hit the wall at the Roval and I realized this could all be gone and we could not transfer, it hurts, and I don't want that," Chastain said. "I feel confident in our Trackhouse group and what we'll have at Martinsville. We just continue to arrive on the scene of the Cup Series, and I wouldn't want to be doing it with anybody else."

Back to those facing must-wins, Chase Briscoe has been in the pressure cooker for the entire past two months. He narrowly advanced after the Roval but a crash at Homestead means he also needs nothing short of a win.

That crash was his first DNF of the season and couldn't have been any worse timed.

"The driver just made a mistake," said Briscoe. "I was really, really loose that run. We were really tight every other run. That green-flag run, we tried to get really free on the other side of it… I was hanging on with everything I had. It felt like I was on ice.

"Honestly, I wasn’t even running hard. I was trying to just get to the caution. We kept getting freer. I got sideways and had the wheel all the way to the right and ended up head-on into the wall. It is really frustrating to have it be something of my own doing. I am better than…crashing by myself."

At least the math got considerably simpler for Sunday.

"It is really unfortunate," Briscoe said. "It makes our job easier next week, I guess. We don’t have to worry about points. We (have) to go to Martinsville and win."

Ryan Blaney doesn’t have to win, but facing a 18-point deficit, he is treating this weekend like a must-win scenario.

"Being as many points as we are out, it’s kind of like a must-win," Blaney said. "I don’t see us making up that many points, so just go to try to put yourself in position to win the race. I don't think we can point our way in, honestly. I think we're too far out."

It's an interesting position to be in because Blaney hasn't won yet this season and has advanced this far on virtue of consistency. That consistency hit a road block at Homestead when Blaney conceded to a mistake by spinning on pit exit.

He said he 'downshifted like a dumbass,' resulting in breaking traction.

"We were in a decent spot running third on the green flag stop, and then I just made a mistake," Blane said. "That is two weeks in a row I made a mistake, and it cost us a good run. I couldn’t get back up through the field after that. It was an unfortunate end of the day again, due to a driver mistake again."

For those fighting for the final spot, qualifying loomed large over their ambitions on Saturday. Based on the spring race, it is now next to impossible to really pass at Martinsville due to the increased corner speed, lack of tire falloff, low horsepower and shifting with the Next Gen car.

Track position, especially at the start of the race is going to be valuable for those needing stage points or early track position, and that bodes well for Chase Elliott, Blaney, Briscoe and Hamlin. The latter could have afforded to start better but considering the five-point difference and William Byron starting so deep in the field, that’s an opportunity to crate an early points swing.

Starting position in parenthesis:

Joey Logano Adv. (P12)
Ross Chastain +19 (P9)
Chase Elliott +11 (P2)
William Byron +5 (P25)
Denny Hamlin -5 (P11)
Ryan Blaney -18 (P4)
Christopher Bell -33 (P20)
Chase Briscoe -44 (P3)

If Blaney has any chance of pointing his way in, he needs to score a lot of stage points, and hope that either Hamlin falters or Byron can’t make up ground.

"That’s not bad," Blaney said after the qualifying session. "It’s a lot better starting spot than we were in the spring, so that’s good. I thought our race speed was pretty good, so it’s just a matter of staying in it all race. Like I said, starting decent and we just have to stay right for 500 laps."

And qualifying was about more than starting position too, as starting up front benefits pit stops too.

"It’s huge for multiple things," Blaney added. "Just starting ahead of all this stuff and possible trouble, and also getting a good pit stall, so you just hope to have a good day on pit road and not make mistakes. You want to take advantage of what you’ve got and what you did here on Saturday to the most of your ability on Sunday."

Facing that must-win, Briscoe will start third and that's the chance he needed to start things on the right footing.

"Starting third is better than starting 13th," Briscoe said. "For us, we’ve got to win the race. It would have been a lot easier to start on the pole and try to lead them all, but there are a lot of things that come with qualifying on the pole here from pit stall selection and things like that. That’s the frustrating part. I know I gave away a pretty big advantage for tomorrow. I’ve just got to do better on my part, but we’ve got a really good car for tomorrow. That’s going to be half the battle."

And it will be a battle, for literally everyone other than Joey Logano by virtue of his victory at Las Vegas, as no one else is safe and no one can afford a DNF, bad pit stop or misfortune on a day where track position will mean so much.