NASCAR Cup Series: Expect chaos as seven drivers battle for four playoff points

William Byron is one of seven drivers vying for four places in the NASCAR Cup Series Finals. Daryl Graham/The Associated Press

Joey Logano has a little tension at Martinsville Speedway, as his results won’t make a difference in his run to the NASCAR Championship.

The rest of the domain?

Well, expect chaos.

Three spots are still open at the decisive end of the championship and seven drivers head into Sunday’s race at NASCAR’s smallest and oldest circuit with a chance. Just 58 points separates Ross Chastain in second from Chase Briscoe in eighth, and a win could earn the driver an automatic berth in the winner-takes-all final at the Phoenix Raceway.

Lugano has already entered the championship race after winning in Las Vegas two weeks ago. The remaining seven drivers will fight for every possible point on a 0.526-mile track that in April proved impossible to overtake.

“Nobody’s going through anyone in Martinsville, so it’s best to bring him,” said NASCAR 2020 Champion Chase Elliott. “It will be difficult.”

He knows Elliot intimately. He started from pole in Martinsville in the spring and led 185 laps. But he lost the lead to Hendrik Motorsports teammate William Byron and it was to Elliot, who finished a bewildering ninth as he stopped in traffic the rest of the race.

In fact, only four drivers drove laps on the debut of the next generation car in Martinsville, and Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon combined to drive six mega laps out of 403 laps. The show was the property of Byron and Elliot, who combined to lead the remaining 397 laps (98.5%). That pushed Hendrik Motorsports to 10,000 laps at the track in Virginia, Rick Hendrik’s home state.

So what do you mean?

Track position is critical, and the next generation car, built in part to level the playing field, has left a little distance from the front to the back of the grid. Goodyear’s new 18-inch tire on the cars has created more grip, reducing the potential for driver errors.

With the opportunity to compete for the Cup Championship at stake, the drivers would have no choice but to be very aggressive.

But NASCAR has made it clear over the past three weeks that it is watching closely and will not tolerate any kind of race manipulation or retaliation. Bubba Wallace was suspended for Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for intentionally crashing Kyle Larson a week ago, and Cole Caster and Stewart Haas Racing had an appeal Thursday set to pay their $200,000 fines for allegedly helping Briscoe advance to the third round of qualifying. .

Wallace co-owner Denny Hamlin crashed Elliott once in Martinsville to spark a heated post-race exchange. Following the message NASCAR has been sending out over the past several weeks, drivers will have to think carefully about what’s acceptable this Sunday.

“They drew a very good line,” Hamlin said of NASCAR. “They did the right thing. Now it comes down to can we be more consistent with that in the future? What is the critical factor for crossing that line?”

Blaney, who drove five laps in Martinsville in the spring but still thinks he has a car capable of winning, sits sixth behind Hamlin below the cutting line along with Christopher Bell and Briscoe. Bell and Briscoe both believe they are in positions to win to advance to the Phoenix Final, but Blaney thinks he can qualify on points.

He also now knows he has to do so within the confines of NASCAR.

“Personally, I think it’s a good idea for NASCAR to repeal the law, to scrutinize the things that they think are wrong and that they want to act,” Blaney said. “That’s the only way you can keep an eye on it. You have to do these things. At the end of the day, that’s their call.”

“If they see something they don’t like, I expect them to act on it, and they have another two weeks. It doesn’t change the approach to the way I do anything. In my opinion, you never think of, ‘If you do something malicious with intent, or something like that, you can get rid of from him.”

Martinsville in 2015 was the site of one of the most recent atrocious acts of revenge. Matt Kenseth, feuding for weeks with Lugano, put his wrecked car back on the track to purposely fight back against Lugano – a move that cost Lugano a place in the championship race and earned Kenseth a two-race suspension. Kenseth was the last driver suspended on the track before Wallace last week.

With the season for seven drivers on the line on Sunday, it could lead to desperate action on dwindling laps.

“Sports tests your morals and tests your character a lot,” Lugano said. “Sometimes it’s hard to balance it all out in the heat of the moment. Sometimes you make decisions you’re not proud of later, but you learn lessons every time. I made mistakes and made stupid decisions inside racing cars that I regretted. But I learned from every one of them, and I feel I know where my line is now.”

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