By R. Boden
In a lot of ways, this is the race I’ve circled on my calendar as being the big bang finale. Sure, Phoenix gets the glory of crowning NASCAR’S next champion…but Martinsville? Martinsville gets the glory of separating the men from the boys in a field where there ain’t much room for mistake. In a season riddled with storylines that only the Gen 6 car and a few edgy personalities could draw up, it all comes to a head at the fabled “paperclip.” Scenarios plentifully abound heading into Sunday, but scenarios be damned- seven drivers have but one thing on the brain. Win. Does retribution play a role on Sunday? More team-oriented shenanigans? Will the fourth and final playoff spot be decided by the ol’ chrome horn? Saddle up and buckle down, we’re at Martinsville.
Driver to Fade: Christopher Bell- If anyone has a right to be pissed off on Sunday, it’s Bell. A victim of Bubba Wallace’s shenanigans two Sundays ago at Vegas, his playoff run took a dramatic twist when his #20 Rheem Toyota became collateral damage. An eleventh-place finish last week keeps him mathematically alive in the playoffs, but his chances at Martinsville look grim. His stats here aren’t on his side- he’s averaged one top-10 finish in 5 starts. Then again, I’m not exactly sure the odds favored him before his walk-off win at the Roval… but barring any late-stage chaos, I predict Bell will be racing for pride next week in Phoenix.
Dark Horse: Austin Dillon- I struggled with this one this week. I think quite a few guys- guys we wouldn’t expect, could makes some waves this weekend. But, consistency and experience are key to moving up the field at Martinsville. He played spoiler at Daytona to close out the regular season, and I get the feeling the #3 could make life a little tough for some of our must-wins this weekend, too. His last five races here, he’s finished consistently higher, including a 3rd place finish here in the spring. Keep an eye on Dillon.
Top 10: Kyle Larson- Too little, too late for the #5. But when you’re hot, you’re hot (right, Jerry?). The winner of last week’s contest, and a road course victor this season, Larson is out to prove a). the Wallace incident doesn’t affect him, and b). this year’s playoff run was a fluke. Two top 10’s here within the last 4 years, he’s going to do it again on Sunday.
Winner: Brad Keselowski- The co-owner of RFK Racing has had a largely forgettable season. He’s nibbled around the front a few times, but remains winless on the 2022 season. All that changes today at the Xfinity 500. In the spring, he recorded his second-to-worst finish here in seven years, but his consistency here is undeniable. Today he starts 6th in a field crowded with angst and restlessness. The #6 Kohler Generators RFK Ford Mustang will play spoiler and take the checkered flag today at Martinsville, making this a chess match for seven drivers who desperately need a win to get to the big dance next week.