The checkered flag has flown in Miami! Now, there’s only one more race to decide who will compete for a NASCAR Cup Series title in Phoenix. Kyle Larson already punched his ticket to the Valley of the Sun last week in Vegas. Did another chaser join him in the Championship 4 Club? Let’s talk about who’s in, who needs a little bit of help, and who needs to win at the paperclip to advance to the finale in Phoenix. It’s time for another Playoff Update: Miami Edition!
One More Joins The Championship 4
Christopher Bell (ADV.)
One week ago, Christopher Bell was charging late at a leading Kyle Larson but ran out of laps. This week, the shoe was on the other foot. Bell’s car didn’t really come to life until late in the stages of the 4Ever 400 as he didn’t crack into the top-5 until after lap 200. But, once he was there, he was a hard charger for the win. Able to jump out front after a late-race restart, Bell pulled away. Even a hard-charging Blaney with less than 10 laps to go did not have enough to reel in that No. 20 JGR Rheem Toyota.
Christopher Bell will advance to the Championship 4 race at Phoenix in a couple of weeks.
Here you can watch his race-winning pass for the lead as he smoked by William Byron.
This is perhaps the sweetest celebration of Bell’s career. He will compete for his first championship in two weeks’ time at Phoenix.
Kyle Larson (ADV.)
Even though he won last week at Las Vegas, many eyes were on Kyle Larson heading into Homestead this weekend. It long has had the reputation of being one of Larsons’ strongest tracks and it did not take long for him to capture the lead. He would dominate much of the first stage, taking the win. Prior to the race, he had this to say heading into one of his favorite races of the year.
Larson would win Stage 1, taking some valuable points away from someone who might’ve really needed them.
Despite Larson’s early dominance, he would eventually DNF the race, finishing in the 34th position. The incident that took him out happened during the beginning of the green flag pitstops. Larson, who was chasing leader Ryan Blaney, got onto pit road rather hot while Blaney took a more conservative approach. Rather than getting into the back of Blaney and ruining his day, too, Larson veered right and plowed into the sand barrels on the end of pit lane. This would total the 2021 champ’s car and end his day.
NASCAR on NBC caught up with Larson after the incident and he had this to say. It’s a good thing he won last week a Vegas to advance. If that hadn’t happened, he might have been on the outside looking in.
A Bit of a Cushion
William Byron (+30)
In the closing laps of the 4Ever 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, William Byron had a fast car. After the final late-race restart, he was challenging for the lead hard as the laps wound down. Ultimately, he would get passed by eventual winner, Christopher Bell and later Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick. He would bring home his No. 24 Liberty University Chevy in the 4th position
Heading into Martinsville, Byron has a pretty decent cushion as he currently sits 30 points above the cutline. If he can stay out of trouble at the paperclip, he should be able to easily point his way into Championship 4 at Phoenix.
Here, as posted by NASCAR on NBC, you can watch Byron’s late-race pass for the lead as Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney battle hard, side-by-side.
Ryan Blaney (+10)
This has to be a heartbreaking loss, in some ways, for Ryan Blaney. He and Kyle Larson were the class of the field for the majority of this race and Blaney even won the second stage, collecting those vital stage points. And he would charge late, running down leader, Christopher Bell until the final laps when the No. 20 was able to extend his lead. Fighting off a charging Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney came home in the runner-up spot. A great run but not at all what he had hoped, especially after running so well earlier on in the day.
The tipping point might have been the incident coming onto pit road involving Kyle Larson. Larson, prior to hitting the sand barrels, did get into the back of Blaney. While it appeared at first to be mostly cosmetic damage, could there have been something underneath the car that got bent and took away some of the No. 12’s speed? We may never know but to have this one slip through his fingers is surely a tough pill to swallow.
Currently, Ryan Blaney sits 10 points to the good in 4th place in the playoff standings.
Below, you can relive Blaney’s Stage 2 win. Those points certainly helped him in the standings.
After the race, the NBC crew caught up with Blaney.
Tyler Reddick (-10)
Tyler Reddick as well as his teammate, Bubba Wallace, snuck up on us as the race wound down. In the closing laps, Reddick was fast and was able to secure a 3rd place finish, which is huge for this team. Currently, he sits 10 points behind the cutline. By no means is he in must-win territory but with only 1 race remaining before the championship finale in Phoenix, he’s going to have to be a contender all day at Martinsville and be up there, earning the most stage points he can muster if he wants to advance.
Martin Truex Jr. (-16)
Despite Christopher Bell’s win, this was a tough weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex, who will return to the team next year in the No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, has struggled for the entirety of the 2023 NASCAR Playoffs, save for a 9th place finish last week at Vegas. Other than that, he hadn’t finished better than 17th since the playoffs began back and that trend continued here today.
After getting trapped a lap down early in the event, a nicely timed caution saw Truex receive the free pass and get to line back up with the leaders. Everything seemed to be heading in a positive direction from there until, under a late caution, the engine of the No. 19 started to sound off. As the smoke started to putter out of the tailpipes, Truex came over the radio and said that his engine was blowing up. He would DNF in the 29th position.
These playoffs have been miserable for Truex and his No. 19 crew. While not technically in the must-win territory, if this trend isn’t snapped next week at Martinsville, Truex will find himself on the wrong side of the cutline.
Denny Hamlin (-16)
Unlike his teammate, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin was pretty dominant in the first round of the playoffs. He might not have the finishes to show for it, but he was consistently up front and a threat to win throughout the Round of 16 and even the weeks leading up to the playoffs. Murmurs started to spread through the garage and online that this could (finally) be Denny Hamlin’s year. Then, almost as if thinking that was the kiss of death, he and his team started to make some crucial mistakes, making it impossible for Hamlin to capitalize on his speed.
Hamlin was up front again today, battling for the lead, when something in the steering of his car broke. This sent Hamlin right into the outside SAFER barrier which ended his day. He finished in the 30th position, and he and Truex fell out simultaneously. Currently, Hamlin sits at -16 from the cutline. Not an impossible gap to overcome but, save from his performance in the Round of 16, Hamlin and his team just aren’t showing the longevity it takes to be crowned a NASCAR Cup Series Champion.
Here you can see the incident which took out the driver of the No. 11 SportClips Toyota.
Hail Melon: Must-Win Drivers Heading Into Martinsville
Chris Buescher (-43)
Heading into Homestead-Miami, Chris Buescher pretty much knew that he was going to have to win if he wanted to advance into the Championship Round in Phoenix in a couple of weeks. This weekend, he was pretty much a no-show. He was trapped a lap down early on and never really recovered. It would appear that the hot streak RFK was on heading into the playoffs had been extinguished. He finished in the 21st position at Homestead and now finds himself at -43 points below the cutline. While still mathematically eligible, he’s more than likely going to have to win to advance. Hey, it’s not impossible. Buescher is pretty good on short tracks. But that’s the reality. For him, it’s win or go to the house.
He spoke with Bob Pockrass of FOX Sports before the race in Mami. He told him that he expects that he’ll have to win to advance.
He went in with a good attitude as Jack Rousch told him to “Go get it”.
But in the end, no, it was not a good day for Chris Buescher or his RFK team.
On To Martinsville!
Well, gang, we only have 1 race remaining in this Round of 8. Who will you have your eye on heading into Martinsville? Who do you think will win? Do you see a wildcard making it into the Championship 4 or do you think it’s pretty set the way it is? Let us know what you’re thinking and, in the meantime, keep it right here at DailyDownforce.com and on all of our socials for the latest news and discussions from the world of NASCAR! We’ll see you next week at the paperclip!