Right strategy play in Martinsville will make the difference in advancing or not

Team Penske drivers Ryan Blaney(12) and Brad Keselowski(2) are among the drivers fighting for a spot in the Championship 4(Photo: Getty Images)

NASCAR is getting exactly what it wants this weekend in the Xfinity 500 event at the Martinsville Speedway in a race that will decide the Championship 4 for the season finale. Consider that the scenario with the greatest possible drama will play out on the half-mile track located in southern Virginia on Sunday as only one driver will enter that race locked in as a certain championship contender while the other seven remaining hopefuls will have their fate decided over the course of the afternoon and evening. The sanctioning body could not have asked for more.

Kyle Larson has assured himself of a chance at the NASCAR Cup Series title by winning the first two races in the ‘Round of 8’ which means he will be the only driver to know his destiny before the green flag waves over the paper-clip shaped track. In winning at both the Texas Motor Speedway and the Kansas Speedway the Hendrick Motorsports driver has managed to take away both of those automatic bids thus forcing everyone else into a points battle for the remaining three spots.

Heading to Martinsville, two drivers, while not locked in, seem relatively safe. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin are currently 34 and 32 points above the cutline. Seemingly, it would take a major mishap or mechanical failure to doom their chances. But behind those two, there is a great deal of uncertainty.

Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski will be separated by just six points when they take the green flag on Sunday. And to add more drama to the situation, Joey Logano appears to be in a must-win position as he sits 26 points below the transfer spot which is not unfamiliar territory for the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series champion.

There are multiple strategies for how the drivers and teams who are vying for the three remaining places in the Championship 4 can play out the 500 laps they will face on Sunday.

One way for those teams to take on this race would be to try to get in by simply accumulating the most points. This strategy would call for a team to go for as many stage points as possible even if doing so means giving up track position should caution flags wave just a few laps before the stage breaks. Of course, staying out to gain stage points could bury a contender deep in the pack on the restart following the stage break. Those spots can be difficult to make up as the race plays out.

Also consider that teams trying to point their way into the finale could have their strategy foiled by one of their competitors winning in Martinsville. Obviously, a race win is accompanied by an automatic bid into the next round which would reduce the number of those drivers who can advance on points by one.

On the other hand, a team on the bubble could go all out for a race win. Perhaps pitting during a yellow flag that might happen to come out just before a stage break in order to gain track position when others pit during that break could put a driver in position to win but might also deny that driver stage points which would prove to be valuable if the gamble to win the race does not pay off.

Elliott and Hamlin would most likely be best served to play for points since they have a nice cushion going into the race at Martinsville. On the other hand, a mix of strategies may very well be the order of the day for Busch, Blaney, Truex and Keselowski as each team will have to take race circumstances and the positions of their closest rivals into consideration, especially as the event nears its conclusion.

Of course, Logano almost certainly will have to play for the win if he is to advance.

One of those strategies will prove to be the right one on Sunday and one will not. Its races like these in which drivers, crew chiefs, spotters, and pit crew members earn their money.

Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association

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