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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — There wasn’t much for Ryan Blaney to do other than take full responsibility for the kind of mistake that a driver simply cannot make with so much on the line. Compounding the frustration is that this was the second time in as many races that he did something to negatively impact his team’s championship hopes.

Now, with just a single race remaining in the third round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Blaney’s pathway to the championship finale that once looked clear is filled with several roadblocks. So, it cruelly goes in playoffs where things can turn from good to bad in a flash and leave you wondering how it went all wrong oh so quickly.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” Blaney said Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “… Two weeks bonehead-driver induced, so that part definitely stinks. Just the driver making mistakes. Team does a great job getting our car better again, had a fast car and I wrecked last week by myself, and I downshifted this week coming off pit road. Just disappointed in myself.”

Whether Blaney can rally back to claim one of four spots in the Championship 4 field will be one of the central storylines when the semifinal round concludes Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Here’s a look at where the eight semifinalists stand and who should be feeling good to advance to the Nov. 6 finale at Phoenix Raceway.


Joey Logano

Status: Clinched spot in Championship 4

Round 3 finishes: 1st (Las Vegas), 18th (Homestead)

Summary: The Las Vegas win afforded Logano a de facto bye regardless of how he finished in the subsequent two races. Another big bonus is that his Team Penske team can focus its primary attention on preparing for the Phoenix championship race, a tangible benefit no other semifinalist has had.

Martinsville outlook: Logano can park it on Lap 1, grab a snack and a cold beverage and just take in Sunday’s action from the grandstand because it has no impact on his championship eligibility. That’s a nice luxury considering the tumult that Martinsville usually presents.

Ross Chastain

Status: Plus-19 points from the cutline

Round 3 finishes: 2nd (Las Vegas), 2nd (Homestead)

Summary: This round set up well for Chastain with Las Vegas and Homestead the exact type of tracks that plays to the strengths of him and Trackhouse Racing. And Chastain capitalized on that advantage by posting consecutive runner-up finishes that have him well-positioned to earn his first-ever Championship 4 berth in what is his first playoff appearance. Chastain has been the most impressive title contender this round.

Martinsville outlook: A solid result Sunday will be more than enough for Chastain to advance. And should something happen, and he finds himself in trouble, the fact he has a 19-point cushion offers him a bit of a safety net. Barring a complete collapse, pencil him in for the final round.

Chase Elliott

Status: Plus-11 points

Round 3 finishes: 21st (Las Vegas), 14th (Homestead)

Summary: This round hasn’t been Elliott’s best, particularly Las Vegas where he said he struggled to offer proper feedback to the team so they could improve the car. Homestead was better as he did earn stage points that helped negate him backsliding out of the top 10 late. Still, the 31-point buffer he once had is down to 11 points, and that is cause for concern heading into Martinsville.

Martinsville outlook: The Virginia short track is a good place for Elliott to turn things around and sew up his third straight spot in the title race. He’s won here previously (2020) and in the spring he started on the pole and led 185 laps before pit strategy cost him track position that he was never able to reclaim. Expect him to be among the contenders on Sunday.

William Byron

Status: Plus-5 points

Round 3 finishes: 13th (Las Vegas), 12th (Homestead)

Summary: While Byron has had speed this round, his finishes haven’t reflected that, and that is why he finds himself squarely on the bubble. The primary issue in both races was a single green-flag run where the handling on the No. 24 car went away, causing him to lose several positions. The good news is that he’s earned points in every stage within this round, which is why he’s above the cutline, not below it.

Martinsville outlook: There is likely no other track Byron would want to head to with his playoff hopes on the line than Martinsville. Not only did he win there in the spring, leading a race-high 212 laps, but he’s finished fifth or better in three consecutive races and has top 10s in five of the past six races. If he can replicate a similar performance Sunday, he stands a good chance of competing for the championship at Phoenix.

Denny Hamlin

Status: Minus-5 points

Round 3 finishes: 5th (Las Vegas), 7th (Homestead)

Summary: A good, though not exceptional, round has given Hamlin a realistic path to advancing to the Championship 4 for a fourth consecutive year. Five points is not a significant deficit, one that can quickly be overcome after just a single stage, and he’s well-versed in the pressures that come with navigating an elimination race. Those are the positives. The negatives are that Las Vegas and Homestead were missed opportunities, leaving Hamlin in a precarious points spot with almost no margin for error.

Martinsville outlook: Normally, counting on Hamlin to produce a strong effort at Martinsville instills great confidence as he’s the active leader in wins and laps led. But this is not a normal year. The Next Gen car changed the dynamic on short tracks, and the fallout is that Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team uncharacteristically struggled, badly, in the spring Martinsville race. On that cold weekend, Hamlin qualified 25th, finished 28th and left the track saying the racing “wasn’t fun, from my standpoint.” Should he turn out a similar performance Sunday, there is no chance he advances out of this round.

Ryan Blaney

Status: Minus-18 points

Round 3 finishes: 28th (Las Vegas), 17th (Homestead)

Summary: This round has been an absolute nightmare that Blaney is going to look back on with serious regret. The first occurred when he crashed while running second at Las Vegas; then came Sunday when running third he spun himself out exiting the pits. The mistakes have conservatively cost him 30 points, which likely is going to be enough to keep from moving forward in the playoffs.

Martinsville outlook: Because he’s never won there, Blaney tends to get overlooked as someone who’s consistently a threat to win at Martinsville. But he is. His 10.2 average finish ranks first among active drivers, so him winning Sunday wouldn’t be at all surprising. And he’s likely going to need a win to advance, as overcoming an 18-point deficit is unrealistic. The question, however, is whether he can avoid another costly blunder like the ones that have placed him in this sizeable points hole.

Christopher Bell

Status: Minus-33 points

Round 3 finishes: 34th (Las Vegas), 11th (Homestead)

Summary: A semifinal round that once held so much promise has spiraled downward to where now Bell’s only hope of advancing hinges on winning Sunday. The surest sign that this bracket was going to be cruel came when he was an innocent victim of Bubba Wallace’s decision to intentionally crash Kyle Larson at Las Vegas, knocking Bell out of a race where he had a realistic chance of winning — or at a minimum finishing up near the front. There was no bad luck at Homestead, just a different kind of frustration. Instead of challenging for the win as expected, he finished a nondescript 11th that did nothing to help his cause.

Martinsville outlook: Bell and his No. 20 JGR team are good enough to go and finish in the top 10 at Martinsville. Actually winning, however, is a stretch considering Bell has never finished better than seventh in five career starts nor led a single lap. So don’t expect something similar to last round when he came through in a must-win scenario to stave off elimination.

Chase Briscoe

Status: Minus-44 points

Round 3 finishes: 4th (Las Vegas), 36th (Homestead)

Summary: Another driver who’s going to have some regrets with how his semifinal round unfolded. After rallying to finish fourth at Las Vegas, Briscoe rolled into Homestead with momentum on his side thinking he could win at one of his favorite tracks. Didn’t happen. Instead, his car never handled to his liking, so bad he eventually walloped the wall and ended his day. Finishing in last place means his only path to the Championship 4 is via a win Sunday.

Martinsville outlook: It’s unreasonable to think the second-year driver is going to suddenly jump up and be a factor to win on what is one of NASCAR’s most challenging tracks to figure out. The reality is that the odds favor Briscoe bowing out Sunday after putting together an impressive playoff run that saw him defy most everyone’s expectations. He has a lot to be proud of in this his first postseason appearance.

Prediction

Looking at the standings and who’s currently and who’s out — and by how much — the picture on who advances to the Championship 4 appears mostly clear. We know that Logano has already punched his ticket and, barring something disastrous, Ross Chastain is in good shape. The 11-point advantage Elliott holds, plus how well he runs at Martinsville, gives confidence he’ll join Logano and Chastain in the next round.

The final spot comes down to Byron, Hamlin and Blaney. Both Byron and Hamlin can go on by points, whereas winning is Blaney’s only realistic avenue. That’s a tough situation to be in, so Blaney is out.

The deciding factor is that, while Hamlin is regarded as the Martinsville master, Byron won there in the spring and Hamlin struggled. It’s hard to envision Hamlin closing the performance gap enough where he can outrun Byron.

(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)



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