The penultimate race of the 2023 Cup Series season gets underway today with the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Following the conclusion of the race, the top 4 drivers in the standings will advance to the Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway next weekend.
Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have locked into the Championship 4 already thanks to their wins in the Round of 8. The last two spots are currently held by William Byron, who sits 30 points above the cut line, and Ryan Blaney, who is 10 points to the good. Chris Buescher, sitting 43 points below the cut line, is essentially in a must win situation today, while both Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin are 17 below the cut line and Tyler Reddick sits 10 points below.
Martinsville Speedway is a 0.526 mile asphalt and concrete oval that first opened in 1947 and has hosted NASCAR races annually since 1949. The carnage in yesterday’s Xfinity Series race is likely a sign of things to come today, as desperate drivers will do desperate things to keep their season alive. With both Hamlin and Truex starting inside the top 5 today, stage points will be extremely crucial for either of them to potentially move on to race for a Championship.
Last year’s edition was won by Christopher Bell, who, facing a must win situation, led 150 laps on the day and punched his ticket to the Championship 4 with a victory. Kyle Larson was second, Ryan Blaney was third, and Ross Chastain finished fourth thanks to the move heard ‘round the world, as he fully sent it into turns three and four and rode the wall all the way to the finish line, passing 5 cars and locking up a spot in the Championship 4. The Hail Melon move knocked Denny Hamlin, who rounded out the top 5 that day, out of the final spot in the Championship 4.
Driver to Fade:
Justin Haley is atrocious at Martinsville. That’s it. That’s the prediction. In 5 career Martinsville starts, his best finish is 27th. His best finish this season on a short track that wasn’t covered in dirt was 23rd at Dover. Haley has an average finish of 20.5 this season and will start today’s race in 24th place. No chance he reaches the top 20.
2023 has not been a successful season for Ryan Preece at all. In his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, Preece has had just 1 top 5 and 2 top 10 finishes. However, there is room for hope today. Preece started on the Pole here in the spring race, led 135 laps and ultimately finished 15th after a pit road penalty shuffled him to the back and he couldn’t recover from it. Preece has also finished in the top 12 at each of the last 2 short track races, finishing 5th at Richmond and 12th at Bristol. Preece starts 9th today and will definitely have a chance to pull off an upset if there is carnage late. A third straight top 12 finish is certainly within Preece’s reach this afternoon.
After making a Playoff appearance last season, Chase Briscoe is having a tougher year in 2023, with just 3 top 5’s and 7 top 10’s. However, Martinsville may arguably be his best track on the schedule. Briscoe has had 3 straight top 10 finishes here, including a 5th place finish here in the spring where he lead 109 laps on the day. Briscoe is starting today’s race in 3rd place at the track on the schedule where having great track position matters the most. Briscoe could very well pull off the upset victory, but we predict that he is a lock for a 4th straight top 10 finish at Martinsville.
In recent years, it’s tough to say that there’s been a better driver at Martinsville than Denny Hamlin. In 35 career starts, Hamlin has 5 wins, 18 top 5’s, 24 top 10’s, 28 top 20’s, and 2,226 laps led. Hamlin laid down the fastest lap in practice yesterday and qualified in 5th position for today’s race. Hamlin will have a huge advantage with track position since he’ll be starting up front, but Hamlin sits 17 points below the cut line. He’s going to need every point he can get, but the odds are strong that it’s going to take a win for him to move on to the Championship 4. At the end of the day, if Hamlin is close to the lead and needs to move someone in order to get the victory, he will have no qualms about doing so. He has no problem playing the villain, which for once, could actually play to his advantage. All of this adds up to a Denny Hamlin victory and a spot in the Championship 4!