Martinsville qualifying suprises tease NASCAR Playoff drama
Qualifying for the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway produced some interesting results on Saturday night.
More importantly, it stands to immediately shift the balance of power in the race to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4.
That’s because each stage of the race pays championship points to drivers inside the top-10. And if a driver can’t win his way into the season finale next month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this is going to be a points battle over the next three races at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix.
First, let’s take a glance at the standings.
1. Kyle Busch +40
2. Kevin Harvick +39
3. Martin Truex Jr. +23
4. Chase Elliott +3
5. Clint Bowyer -3
6. Joey Logano -3
7. Kurt Busch -3
8. Aric Almirola -12
Before this piece really gets going, remember that the results of qualifying will not be made official until technical inspection on Sunday morning, meaning the actual starting line-up could shift depending on any failures.
Kyle Busch qualified on the pole so he will start the race controlling his own destiny. Kevin Harvick qualified 13th but has so many points due to his regular season success that it will take several DNFs to force him below the cutoff on points.
Martin Truex Jr., the other Big Three contender, qualified sixth in his attempt to win a Cup Series short track race for the first time. That’s pretty solid too.
That brings us to Chase Elliott, currently three points over Clint Bowyer for the final provisional spot on the playoff cutoff, who could only manage a 21st-place qualifying run on Saturday.
He posted the second quickest time in final practice but showed no such speed in qualifying. He barely qualified into the second round of time trials, needing a second run and three extra laps on his tires to ensure that he didn’t fall below the cutline. In hindsight, he didn’t need to make that second attempt, but it didn’t matter because the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet didn’t show any increased speed.
After winning two races in the previous round, and three of the past 11 overall races, he’s inexplicably starting in the second half of the field on Sunday.
"We need to go a lot faster," Elliott said. "It just wasn’t… we didn’t do a real good job, just a lot of work to do."
And they really do have their work cut out for them because Bowyer will start second. That means as soon as the field takes the green flag, Bowyer will provisionally be above the cutline and Elliott will fall to last on the ‘as they run points.’
And while that doesn’t mean much in a vacuum, if Elliott can’t reach the top-10 by the end of the first stage and Bowyer, Logano and Kurt Busch all do, that’s also problematic for the third-year Cup star.
It doesn’t help that Martinsville could prove to be challenging to create passing opportunities due to the colder temperatures, a lack of tire falloff and stage racing that may eliminate the opportunity for drivers to get off-cycle and force an opportunity to score stage points.
And with Almirola starting fifth and Logano 11th, there is a huge opportunity for the first two stages to place Elliott into an early points deficit early into this three-race round.
And it’s been proven before that every point matters in this round. Jeff Gordon missed the championship race in 2014 by a single point. It rained at Phoenix of all places in 2015, the timing of a race-ending storm eliminating Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch from the winner-take-all race. In 2017, Elliott and Denny Hamlin both likely advance into the Championship Race if they didn’t get involved in an on-track altercation and simply run 1-2.
The minutia of this round absolutely matters and it matters from the moment the green flag waves on Sunday at Martinsville.