DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Certainly this is one of the most interesting and diverse Round of 8 driver lineups in recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history with four former series champions, a championship runner-up and three of the hottest young talents in the sport still contending for the 2019 trophy.
Regular season champion Kyle Busch heads into Sunday's First Data 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a mere four-point edge on his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. -- the slimmest advantage Busch has had to start a Playoff round this season.
Their JGR teammate Denny Hamlin is nine points behind Busch and is the series' most recent winner, collecting his fifth trophy last Sunday at Kansas Speedway. Team Penske's Joey Logano -- the defending series champion -- is fourth, 16 points behind Busch in the standings lead.
The remaining drivers hoping to race their way into the final round of the Playoffs for a ticket to compete for the series championship on Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway include 2014 series champ Kevin Harvick and three of the brightest new stars in NASCAR -- Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney. Harvick is hot on Logano's heels for that crucial fourth place position.
Hamlin has earned more than double the number of wins as anyone else in the Playoff field at Martinsville with five victories, including three consecutively from 2010-11. Busch has two Cup wins at the track and is the only other Playoff driver with multiple wins there. Logano and Harvick have won a race apiece. The other four drivers -- including the 2017 Cup champion Truex have not won a Cup race at Martinsville.
All three of the youngest contenders have Playoff experience prior to this season. Elliott, Blaney and Larson have advanced to this penultimate title round before (in 2017). Elliott finished a career-best fifth in the Playoff standings in 2017. Larson was eighth that year and Blaney was ninth.
Elliott, 23, doesn't have a Cup win at Martinsville, but he did earn one of his two career Gander Outdoors Truck Series victories there in 2017. Elliott has 11 top-10 finishes in 25 Cup short track races and his Hendrick Motorsports team is the winningest (24 victories) in Martinsville history.
And for good measure -- Elliott does have one heckuva Hendrick Motorsports teammate to lean on at the notoriously tough venue. Jimmie Johnson has nine wins at the track -- most among active drivers.
Larson, 27, who earned his spot in the Round of 8 with a victory at Dover, Del., three weeks ago, has 12 top-10 finishes on short tracks including a runner-up at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in 2018 and a third-place in the Spring, 2016 Martinsville race. Blaney, 25, who won at Talladega two weeks ago, has six top-10 finishes at short tracks including third place at Martinsville in Spring, 2018.
"Martinsville has been hit-or-miss for us," said Elliott, who drives the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. "We ran good there in the Spring, ran bad there last Fall. I feel like we have really good runs there and bad runs there. I haven't really done anything different; we just need to really do our homework this week and just really focus on it."
And that's essentially the competitive mode for all of Elliott's opponents as well.
In the last 10 races, Hamlin (2015), Kyle Busch (2016 and 2017) and Logano (defending race winner) are the only current Playoff drivers with victories at Martinsville.
Busch was the 2019 season's first four-time winner, but he hasn't raised a trophy in 18 races -- dating back to the first summer stop in Pocono, Pa. Logano has won twice, but not since the first Michigan summer race 17 races ago.
Hamlin has been the most consistent of the multi-winners this season. He won the season-opening Daytona 500 and the most recent race at Kansas with victories at Texas in April, Pocono in August and Bristol, Tenn., in September in between. His 17 top-five finishes are a career best for the 38-year-old whose birthday is the day after the Miami finale.
Consistency and leadership from a now veteran Hamlin have kept his No. 11 JGR Toyota team feeling and acting like the championship favorites -- particularly coming into this round's three-race stretch. Only Busch, Hamlin, Logano and Harvick have won at all three tracks -- at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix -- that will settle the list of championship contenders.
"Now we're dialed in and focused on Martinsville and the Round of 8," Hamlin said. "Martinsville is going to be very pivotal. We've always seen great battles there. I feel like it's the greatest race in the Playoffs other than Homestead."
GANDER TRUCKS RETURN TO THE PAPERCLIP
With the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs in full swing, many expect this weekend's intense short track battle at Martinsville Speedway to be an especially compelling race with huge championship implications.
Only one of the current six Playoff drivers has a previous Martinsville victory. Two-time series champion Matt Crafton won on the track in Spring, 2014 and Fall, 2015. That 2014 win came the same season that Crafton earned his second consecutive Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship.
One of his biggest competitors in Saturday's NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 (1:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the reigning champion, Brett Moffitt, who is hoping to duplicate Crafton's 2013-14 championships and become only the second driver to ever win back-to-back titles.
Moffitt holds a 23-point edge over Canadian driver Stewart Friesen, who is looking for his first series title. Austin Hill is third in the standings, 33 points behind Moffitt and Crafton is fourth, 44 points back. Fifth place Tyler Ankrum is only a single point behind Crafton and sixth place Ross Chastain is two points behind Crafton making this a tightly bunched group of Playoff contenders.
Only the top four drivers in the Playoff standings at the conclusion of this round will have the opportunity to race for the championship trophy on Nov. 15 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Crafton's ThorSport Racing teammate Johnny Sauter is a four-time race Martinsville winner and is the defending winner of this Fall race. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch won on the Martinsville half-miler this Spring.
As for the six still in title contention, Moffitt has never finished worse than sixth in four starts at the half-mile track. He was runner-up to Sauter in this race last year. Friesen has five starts at Martinsville and his best effort came just this Spring when he won the pole position and finished fifth. Hill has a pair of top-10 finishes in eight starts. His best is a ninth place in March 2018.
Crafton boasts the best resume at Martinsville. In addition to his two victories, he has nine top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 35 series starts.
Of the remaining two drivers still championship eligible and so very close to breaking into that top four -- Chastain has the best finish -- a fourth place this Spring. He's had three top 10s in seven career truck starts at Martinsville. The 18-year-old Ankrum has only two starts at the track with a best showing of 18th in last year's Playoff race.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: First Data 500
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Sunday, October 27
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 263 miles (500 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 130), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 260), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 263)
2018 Race Winner: Joey Logano
What to Watch For: Ford drivers have won four of the last five Martinsville races, including the last three. ... Hendrick Motorsports leads all teams with 24 wins in the 141 Martinsville races. Geoff Bodine (1984) was Hendrick's first win at the track and Jimmie Johnson (2016) was the last. ... Red Byron was the first winner at Martinsville (September 1949) driving a 1949 Oldsmobile for Raymond Parks. ... There have been 10 different winners in the last 11 Martinsville races. Brad Keselowski (2017 and 2019) is the only repeat during that span. ... And the manufacturer parity is equally as impressive -- four for Chevrolet, four for Ford and three for Toyota. ... Chevrolet is the winningest manufacturer with 56 wins. Ford has 20 and Toyota has seven. ... Jimmie Johnson is the last polesitter to win at the track and the last driver to win consecutive races. He won both the Fall/2012 and Spring/2013 races from the pole. ... The pole position is the winningest spot on the starting grid (21 wins). ... The farthest back on the grid a winning driver has started is 36th -- Kurt Busch in 2002. ... Johnson a nine-time Martinsville winner has the most top-fives (19), top 10s (24) and laps led (2,962) among active drivers. ... Johnson leads all active drivers in average finishing position (8.4). Denny Hamlin (9.5) leads the eight Playoff drivers in average finishing position. ... 25 of the 52 former Martinsville winners are multi-race winners. ... The youngest winner in Martinsville history is Richard Petty, who was 22 years, nine months and eight days when he won in April 1960. ... The late Dale Earnhardt holds the Martinsville record for runner-up finishes (seven). Jimmie Johnson has the most (four) among active drivers. ... Kurt Busch has the most career starts (38) among active drivers -- with two wins (Fall, 2002 and Spring, 2014). ... Clint Bowyer made the most starts (24) before winning -- the longest span among winners. ... Grey Gaulding (October 2016), Chase Elliott (March 2015) and Michael McDowell (March, 2008) all made their Cup debut at Martinsville. .... The last driver to win his first Cup race at Martinsville was Ricky Craven in October 2001. ... Joey Logano has won the most pole positions (five) among active drivers. Darrell Waltrip owns the all-time record of eight. ... A victory Sunday for Johnson would make him only the third driver to have 10 wins or more at multiple tracks -- joining Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: NASCAR Hall of Fame 200
The Place: Martinsville Speedway
The Date: Saturday, October 26
The Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 105.2 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 50),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 100), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
2018 Winner: Johnny Sauter
What to Watch For: Defending race winner Johnny Sauter has a series-best four wins at Martinsville. He and Kyle Busch are the only two repeat winners in the last 11 races winning twice each. ... In five of the last six years, the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series champion scored a win in the opening four races of the season. Daytona winner Austin Hill is the only current championship eligible driver with a win in that span this year. Kyle Busch won the Atlanta, Las Vegas, Martinsville and Fort Worth races but the Monster Energy NASCAR cup Series championship contender is ineligible for the truck title. Johnny Sauter won at Dover, Del. and was eliminated after the first round of the Playoffs. ... Defending series champion Brett Moffitt leads the truck championship standings by 23 points over Stewart Friesen. He holds a 45-point advantage over fifth place Tyler Ankrum with two races remaining to set the four-driver championship field at Miami, Fla. ... March winner Kyle Busch and defending winner Johnny Sauter are the only drivers in the last six races to lead the most laps and earn the victory. Busch led 174 of the 250 en route to the win in March. Sauter led 148 in the November 2018 win at the track. Previously Ben Rhodes (134 laps in Spring, 2018), Matt Crafton (102 laps, Fall, 2017), Christopher Bell (96 laps, Spring 2017) and Chase Elliott (109 laps, Fall, 2016) led the most laps in a race and did not hoist the trophy. .... NHRA champion Tanner Gray, 20, is set to make his truck series debut this weekend in the No. 15 DGR-Crosley Toyota. Gray became the youngest NHRA national event race winner when he won a Pro Stock race in 2017. A year later he won the NHRA Pro Stock championship. He's also slated to race at Phoenix's ISM Raceway and the Homestead season finale. ... Sixteen-year old Sam Mayer will be making his second series start, driving the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet.... The last driver to earn back-to-back wins at Martinsville was Mike Skinner, who swept the 2012 season. ... The pole position is the winningest starting spot on the grid -- producing nine victories. A front row starting spot has resulted in 15 wins in the 41-race history. ... The farthest back on the grid a winner has started is 33rd. Dennis Setzer won from there in 2002. ... The first truck series winner at Martinsville was Joe Ruttman who won the September 1995 series debut. ... Toyota is the winningest manufacturer with 16 wins. Chevrolet has 15 and Ford has five. Toyota holds the record for consecutive wins, earning five consecutive victories between 2012-14. .... Sauter is the all-time winningest driver at Martinsville with four victories. His brother Jay won there too in 1998.
--Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media