Ryan Blaney did what Denny Hamlin couldn‘t do in Sunday‘s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
As a result, Blaney will race for the NASCAR Cup Series championship next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, and Hamlin exits the Playoffs after a hard-luck Round of 8.
During a 168-lap green-flag run to the finish, Blaney tracked down Aric Almirola and passed him for the lead on Lap 478 of 500. Twenty-two laps later, Blaney took the checkered flag 0.899 seconds ahead of Almirola to earn advancement to the Championship 4 race.
Blaney joins fellow Round of 8 winners Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell in race for the title, along with William Byron, who fought an ill-handling car all day but edged Hamlin for the final Playoff spot by eight points after finishing 13th.
Hamlin came home third, 4.149 seconds behind the race winner.
Chris Buescher, Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick joined Hamlin on the sidelines after finishing eighth, 12th and 26th, respectively.
The victory was Blaney‘s third of the season, his first at Martinsville and the 10th of his career, and it propelled him into the Championship 4 for the first time. Blaney aced the Round of 8 with a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas, a runner-up result at Homestead and the win at Martinsville.
“Well, I mean, felt like we put together really strong Playoffs—especially the Round of 8… we had a good run in the whole Round of 8,” Blaney said. “Yeah, just overall really proud of the whole effort. RP (Team Penske owner Roger Penske) couldn’t be here, unfortunately, but I know he’s watching. This is awesome. Can’t wait to get to Phoenix next week.”
In front of a sold-out crowd at the .526-mile short track, Blaney earned the grandfather clock trophy he has long coveted.
“I grew up in High Point, not too far from here,” Blaney said. “Really cool. Wanting to win here for a long time. Been super close for many years. Awesome to close it out.”
Hamlin won the 130-lap first stage, finished second to Blaney in Stage 2 and was in position to advance to the title race until the race turned under caution for Michael McDowell‘s spin in Turn 2 on Lap 323. Blaney pitted from the lead, with Hamlin behind.
But 10 cars stayed on the track under the yellow, among them Almirola and Chase Elliott, who led 77 consecutive laps before Almirola passed him for the top spot on Lap 412. On newer tires, Blaney was able to work his way through traffic and take the lead, where Hamlin could only advance to third.
Hamlin entered the race 17 points below the cutoff for the final round because of a power steering failure that cost him dearly at Homestead the week before.
“The mechanical failure last week with the power steering, that sealed our fate,” said the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who led a race-high 156 laps to Blaney‘s 145. “Really proud of this whole FedEx Toyota team for showing up today when we really needed to, having probably a mid 50-point day. They did great. They did absolutely great.
“The 12 car (Blaney) was the best car today, so congrats to them—all the final four that made it. It’s going to be great. Hate we’re not in it. Definitely, I was happy with the performance we had today. Really all-around.
“Just in the Round of 8, you can’t have one bad week. Unfortunately, mechanical failure takes us from running really well to in the 30s. That’s it.”
Truex, the regular-season champion, led the first 47 laps from the pole, but a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 219 mired him in traffic, a circumstance he couldn‘t overcome.
“I felt like we did really good to get back to where we did,” Truex said. “You just burn the tires off so much worse back there in the hot, dirty track, dirty air. You’re in more rubber. It’s just a dogfight.
“I don’t know. We gave it a hell of an effort. I felt like we had a really strong car. I don’t think we could have beat the 12 (Blaney). He was really, really strong. We were definitely close.”
When Hamlin or Truex led the race, Byron was out of the Championship 4 as they ran. But the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet held onto the final berth with a determined effort over the final green-flag run. Byron was 13th at the finish, the first driver one lap down.
“Obviously we were not very good,” Byron said. “Our worst race of the year. These guys deserve it so much. They work so hard. Honestly, probably with 50 to go I felt really, really bad. I just had to drive the hell out of it. The guys stuck with me, they kept motivating me through little bits and pieces, just kind of keeping my mind straight.
“I’m just really thankful for them. It was just, yeah, a slugfest. Everyone raced me good there at the end. Congrats to Ryan. I was really happy for him… but, man, we just had to hang on. Just had to dig a little bit deeper.
“I knew when I got out of the car I was just beat. But the result means more than anything. These guys work so hard. We’ve worked so hard all season. I’m just really proud of them.”
Chase Briscoe and Joey Logano finished fourth and fifth. Larson, Bell, Buescher, Austin Cindric and Todd Gilliland completed the top 10.
— NASCAR News Wire —
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