Hamlin and Gibbs group go to Martinsville as title favorites
All the momentum is with Denny Hamlin headed to Martinsville Speedway for the opening race of the third round of NASCAR's playoffs.
Hamlin, a five-time winner at the Virginia short track, need not look far for worthy challengers, including two of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
JGR moved into the round of eight with three of its four drivers still racing for the Cup Series title and a reasonable shot at advancing the trio into the season finale shootout next month. Kyle Busch was the regular-season champion and holds a four-point lead over teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the standings before Sunday's race. Truex leads the series with six wins, including two in the first round of the playoffs.
Hamlin is third in points and coming off his fifth win of the season, giving Gibbs and Toyota a tremendous 1-2-3 attack for the title. It's only fitting the Gibbs group is in this position — the team has won 16 of the 32 races so far this season — but snagging three of the final four spots in the Homestead-Miami Speedway title-deciding race will be a tricky navigation inside the organization.
"Right now, we have very good chemistry," Gibbs said after Hamlin won at Kansas Speedway last Sunday. "It's not going to buy us anything next week. I get so nervous. I was all excited about (Hamlin), then somebody mentioned next week, and I almost threw up. I said 'You mean this doesn't get us to Homestead?'"
No, the road to Homestead begins at the shortest track on the circuit, a tricky paper clip-shaped 0.526-mile oval. The middle round is at Texas Motor Speedway and then the championship field of four is decided at ISM Raceway outside Phoenix.
Busch, a four-time winner this season but mired in a stretch of 18 races without one, is ready for this nail-biting round. He has just two top-five finishes through the first six playoff races and is eager to get back up front.
"I feel like it's our best round. We run well at all three of those places and we've won a few at Texas, we won Martinsville twice and Phoenix has been getting better for us, too," Busch said. "We just need to continue to execute and do a good job and make sure that we mind our Ps and Qs."
Truex has never won at Martinsville but his performance has picked up the last several years. He has finished eighth or better the last four races, was runner-up to Busch in 2017 and third last October.
"We know what we need to do," Truex said. "Now it's just a matter of going out and doing it. We have been fast, ran up front and led laps at all of these tracks in this round."
A win at Martinsville gives any team breathing room to focus on the Nov. 17 finale and not worry about earning a slot in the final four. Joey Logano was a longshot to win the title last year but won at Martinsville, then upset regular-season heavyweights Busch, Truex and Kevin Harvick three weeks later to claim his first title.
Logano was nearly eliminated from title contention a week ago when he went to Kansas on the bubble, didn't have a remarkable race and then was involved in a late accident that put him head-to-head with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski for the final spot in the round of eight. Keselowski was eliminated, Logano kept his title defense rolling and now hopes Martinsville punches his ticket to Homestead.
The competition will be fierce from Chase Elliott, who has been in the mix at Martinsville but still seeking his first win on the track.
Harvick has had a quiet run so far through the playoffs. He's had three top-five finishes, but hasn't led laps in the last three races and felt his entire weekend at Kansas was the worst of the year for his Stewart-Haas Racing team. Even if the organization gets it corrected, Harvick noted: "Obviously we still have to beat the Gibbs cars."
Notes: The wild cards of this round are Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney, who both won for the first time this season in the second round of the playoffs to advance. Larson loves Homestead and believes if he's part of the final four, he can win the championship. Blaney is racing on extra time following his victory at Talladega, but Larson is a true outside threat to steal the title for Chip Ganassi Racing.
"I always said if I can get to the final four, I have the best shot out of anybody," Larson said. "Texas will be our best chance to get a win. Martinsville is our worst chance, but we'll give it our best shot."