Playoff pressure, qualifying intrigue bring the heat to balmy Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Twenty seconds and change. Every qualifier for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at tricky Martinsville Speedway posted a lap in that amount of time.

The difference in small shreds of seconds during Saturday’s qualifying session meant a precious plenty for the remaining Cup Series Playoffs hopefuls still hoping to clinch a spot in next week’s championship round. Some left smiling, others left frustrated, and most were sweating it — either based on the unseasonably warm temperatures or the mounting pressure.

Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) will determine the two remaining spots in the Championship 4 field for next weekend’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway. Only Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell — established winners in this Round of 8 — have sealed their berths in the final four, leaving only room for a pair of drivers to advance either by points or by a win in Sunday’s 500-lapper. Four will be eliminated.

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The dominant topics on the eve of the race were qualifying and how it can affect strategy; the unusually searing weather and how it might alter track conditions and grip; and just how far drivers might go to deliver a Championship 4 slot, knowing that the desperation “Hail Melon” move that Ross Chastain invented in this race last year — since outlawed — isn’t an option.

Time trials, however, left the remaining six drivers in the postseason hunt with a mixed lot. Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team — who have struggled to get much to go their way during the playoffs after claiming the Regular Season Championship — put their mark on the day by scoring the Busch Light Pole for the second consecutive week.

Truex will start from the No. 1 spot on the grid, putting him in prime position to control the early going and potentially gather stage points that might help him erase his 17-point deficit relative to the provisional elimination line. A victory would make the math a moot point and would provide a needed boost after he eked his way through the postseason’s earlier rounds.

“We’ve been living on the edge, that’s for sure,” Truex said. “We barely made it through the first two rounds, so that‘s been tough for sure — but tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity. We are in a position where I think we can go and win the race, and we will see what happens. I try not to overthink it — just go out and race, and that is my plan for tomorrow.”

Three JGR drivers were among the top four qualifiers, and Denny Hamlin — also 17 points back of the elimination line — sealed the fourth spot on the grid despite a small dose of left-front tire lockup during his run. Larson (starting fifth) and Bell (seventh) were the only other playoff drivers among the top 10.

William Byron\
William Byron\

The rest of the Phoenix hopefuls were in the next 10 after missing the final round of qualifying: Ryan Blaney 11th, William Byron 16th, Chris Buescher 18th and Tyler Reddick rounding the group out in 19th. Byron, a former Martinsville winner, was flustered in the moments just after his qualifying effort but acknowledged that the mood could change for Sunday.

“I think eventually you’ve got to get over qualifying,” said Byron, who sits plus-30 on the playoff bubble. “I just came off the track, so it … eventually, you have to think about the task tomorrow and what the race is going to be like, and we’re gonna have some work to do.”

Asked if stage points were an achievable goal from the 16th starting spot, Byron was direct: “They’ll have to be, yeah.”

MORE: Playoff standings | At-track photos: Martinsville

Reddick’s fall to a midpack start was more dramatic. The 27-year-old driver overheated his Turn 1 entry on his second timed lap and looped the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota through Turn 2. He enters Sunday’s race minus-10 to the cut, and he’ll fire off from Row 10.

“Certainly, gonna change the strategy. We’re going to need to get some track position back the first chance we get,” No. 45 crew chief Billy Scott told NASCAR.com. “The spin, in particular, was just him trying to get something different out of it because Lap 1 didn’t work, and he knew what he had there for balance and what the approach was. You’re just trying to get more out of it, so that’s just a one-off deal.”

A near carbon-copy of Saturday’s weather is expected for Sunday’s main event, with temperatures creeping into the low 80s. Martinsville’s annual autumn date traditionally comes with the backdrop of changing leaves and a frost-on-the-pumpkin chill. The fall foliage is indeed near its peak on the southern Virginia hillsides this weekend, but the balmy conditions have thrown the field a curve.

“It’s crazy that we’re almost in November, and it’s still this hot. I think a couple of years ago it was snowing this weekend,” Larson said. “So yeah, it’s crazy. It feels like the middle of summer — maybe locals might argue that — but yeah, it’s hot out there, and I think it will hopefully make for a little bit better race tomorrow. Maybe you’ll see a little bit more tire fall-off and rubber laid down on the track. Us drivers, I think, always like the hotter temps, even though we may suffer a little bit more in the car. I think for the racing, it’s usually better.”