After a wild weekend at the paperclip, Martinsville Speedway, the checkered flag has flown! One race left to decide it all and that will come next week at Phoenix Raceway. So, who made it through the rigorous Round of 8 and will fight for a Championship next weekend in the Valley of the Sun?
4 have moved on to the Championship Round at Phoenix. That means that 4 have also been eliminated. Let’s take a look first at who’s out then we’ll talk about our championship contenders.
Heading into Martinsville, Chris Buescher basically knew that he was in must-win territory. He said as much in his post-race interview last week at Homestead and said the same thing to Bob Pockrass before the race today. He knew what he needed to do and he said that he and his team was going to work as hard as they could.
Despite his late-summer tear, Buescher was seen as an underdog for much of these playoffs. The RFK team had undoubtedly made great strides this year and Buescher was a big part of that. He brought home his No. 17 in the 8th position. It’s a good, solid finish for that team, definitely something to be proud of. It just wasn’t good enough to compete for a title.
Nobody can say that he and his team gave up, though. They ran a good clean race for the most part and Buescher was driving his heart out. Below, you can see a clip of him getting into fellow Playoff competitor, William Byron as he fought for every inch of real estate.
It certainly has “been a hell of a year” not only for Buescher and his No. 17 team but all of RFK. They took a big step forward this year and they certainly should be proud. Now they still have one race left. After that, it’s time to take a breath and look toward taking another sizeable step forward in 2024.
On the year, Buescher won 3 races and advanced all the way to the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Playoffs.
Tyler Reddick also entered must-win territory rather early on in the race. For the bulk of the race and the weekend as a whole, for that matter, he battled handling issues. During his qualifying attempt on Saturday, Reddick spun out his No. 45 Toyota and failed to advance to the next round of qualifying. This put Reddick in a deep hole early in the race as he started near the back. In a race that had a lot riding on it for the 23XI driver, he was never really able to recover. He ran around mid-pack for most of the day and the only real highlights he had were incidents with other Playoff drivers.
Reddick finished 21st today at Martinsville and failed to advance to the Championship Round. While maybe not racking up as many wins as last season, Reddick was a regular contender through the summer months. I think it’s clear that he has helped elevate the 23XI Racing team this year as both cars not only made it in the playoffs but both advanced past the first round.
During Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Reddick was seen swapping paint with fellow playoff driver Ryan Blaney.
He also got into fellow playoff driver William Byron. In the second stage, he squeezed Byron into the wall as he battled loose conditions, which killed the on-track momentum for both drivers.
In 2023, Tyler Reddick won 2 races and advanced to the Round of 8 in the Playoffs. Not too shabby but there’s still a lot of growth in the 23XI’s NASCAR future.
Martin Truex Jr.
It has been a rough Playoff run for Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 JGR team. It took him until the 7th playoff race in Las Vegas before he could get a finish inside the top-15 and that was just a 9th-place finish. He followed that up with a 29th place at Homestead and a meandering 12th at Martinsville.
Truex spoke with Bob Pockrass in the NASCAR Media Center at Martinsville Speedway about these battles.
The mistakes followed Truex into Martinsville as he was caught speeding on pit road early on, resulting in being forced to restart at the tail-end of the longest line. He was able to rally back to a 12th place finish but it would not be enough to advance.
The regular season champ exits the Playoffs in the Round of 8.
After winning 3 races on the year capturing the regular season title, Martin Truex announced that he would be returning to the No. 19 team for 2024. It is currently unknown how many years Truex has left at NASCAR’s highest level. Maybe next year they can rekindle some of that magic they had in the summer months and put a full year together.
2023 was supposed to be Denny Hamlin’s year. The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota started the year fast and kept the speed pretty consistently throughout the 2023 season. After a dominating performance in the Round of 16, many believed that it might indeed be Hamlin’s year to finally win it all. Speed and consistency quickly dropped off, though, and mistakes, both on-track and on pit road started to hinder the No. 11 team’s performance. What gave Hamlin some confidence, though, heading into the penultimate race of the Round of 8 was that they were heading to one of his best-performing tracks as well as his home track in Martinsville Speedway.
Denny Hamlin started the race strong, battling for the lead early, swapping back and forth with eventual winner, Ryan Blaney. He was even able to win the first stage and score extremely valuable 10 stage points. And even with a 3rd place finish, where they ran on the track, Hamling was quickly put in a must-win type of situation as the laps in the hourglass trickled through.
Hamlin and his team were able to avoid mistakes for much of the day. Their pitstops were lightning-fast and able to get him the lead on a number of occasions.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. Still, late in his career, Denny Hamlin has had a remarkable season by most measures. He visited victory lane 3 times this season and surpassed the 50-win mark. Despite mid-season chattered about him possibly being out of the No. 11 ride next year due to uncertainties about FedEx’s sponsorship, it was announced late in the year that he had signed a multi-year extension with JGR and will be back to give it another go in 2024. But, as he continues to age, one must wonder how many championship-contending years Denny Hamlin has left..?
Presenting the Championship Contenders
Kyle Larson (Las Vegas Winner)
Kyle Larson punched his ticket to the Championship 4 in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. He would hold off fellow Championship 4 competitor, Christopher Bell to secure his Round of 4 playoff berth. So, heading into Martinsville, Larson knew that he was safe therefore he didn’t really push the issue. He finished a respectable 6th place at the paperclip but now it’s time to reset.
The No. 5 car has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the garage this year. Either they’ve shown winning speed or they’ve crashed out. Even in the playoffs, it’s been really hit-or-miss for the HMS 5 crew. Will they be able to get it together heading into Phoenix?
In the 2023 Championship 4 Round of the playoffs, Kyle Larson is the only driver to hoist the Cup before. If he wins, it’ll be his second title won in 3 years. If he doesn’t, we are guaranteed a new champion in 2023. Can he and his HendrickCars.com team turn on all the jets to capture the crown at Phoenix?
Christopher Bell (Homestead Winner)
Heading into Martinsville, Christopher Bell had no worries about not being able to compete for the championship in 2023 as he punched his ticket by winning last week at Homestead. Heading into Phoenix, he might just be the hottest playoff driver of the four as he nearly won at Vegas before running out of time and having to settle for a runner-up finish. He finished a respectable 7th today at Martinsville and if he can keep this momentum up, we might be looking at the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion.
After the race, Bell took to his Twitter page to assure his fans that he and his No. 20 JGR Toyota would be ready to win it all next week in the Valley of the Sun.
Ryan Blaney (Martinsville Winner)
If there is an argument to be had that isn’t the hottest playoff driver still standing, then that honor ought to go to Ryan Blaney. Just like Bell nearly took away the win from Larson back at Vegas, it was Ryan Blaney who narrowly missed punching his ticket to the Championship 4 a week earlier in Homestead. When Blaney unloaded, he and his No. 12 team let everyone know that they meant business. As points rival, Denny Hamlin dominated the first stage, Blaney took the second after some savage door-to-door beating and banging in the second stage.
As the final stage kicked off, Blaney narrowly avoided disaster, again getting into contact with Hamlin. But he was able to save it and fight back on the outside. With 20 laps left, Blaney took the lead for the final time and scooted off to victory.
In the closing laps of the 500-laper at Martinsville Speedway, Blaney led Hamlin with the non-playoff driver Aric Almirola between them in second. As the laps clicked off, Hamlin was in a must-win situation chasing Blaney. If a caution would have come out, this race might have ended very differently. But it didn’t. Ryan Blaney went on to win at Martinsville to advance to his first Championship 4 appearance.
Blaney was elated to win and is stoked to compete for his very first Cup title.
With Blaney’s performance last year at Phoenix and his runner-up run there earlier this year, the gamblers might want to take a hard look at Blaney heading into the Championship race.
William Byron (Advanced on Points)
After qualifying, speaking with FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass, William Byron was frustrated with his efforts. He failed to advance to the final round and rolled off today in the 16th position. Heading into the race, Byron was optimistic that he had a car he could work with.
However, as the day wore on, Byron’s car got progressively worse which led to him struggling and failing to stay on the lead lap in the closing laps. He ultimately finished in the 13th position, 1 lap down. It was a good thing, then, that he entered this race with a 30-point cushion over the cutline. That saved him here today and kept him efficiently out of Denny Hamlin’s reach. Following the race NASCAR on NBC caught up with Byron. He said that he had never been that frustrated in a car and that it was the worst performance from them all year.
There is a silver lining, though. William Byron won at Phoenix earlier this season. Can he do it again and capture his first Cup? Maybe. But they have to get these bugs ironed out and they only have a week to do it. Maybe even less.
In The Stands
Awndrezawndrez calls Byron boring, saying that it’s a shame he’s taking a playoff spot from a more exciting driver. Hmm…not sure I concur but there you go.
Justin Champagne agrees that this is the blandest final 4 since the dawn of the knock-out era.
On the other hand, Philly Trap House is very satisfied with our championship 4 but is hoping Blaney scores his first title. I must say, he’s a pretty popular pick.
Brad King points out that Denny Hamlin has yet again choked.
Elaine C Jarrell wants to see Blaney take it all!
Meanwhile, Susan is happy for Blaney but is still pulling for her boy, Kyle Larson.
Robin Angle cryptically says that there are 3 in this field she wouldn’t mind seeing win it. Hmm…could that be the three who haven’t won it before…or anybody but Bell?
Christopher Atchison is eagerly excited to see Blaney win it all in Phoenix. One race to go, indeed.
Championship Finale at Phoenix
It has been a long road for our championship contenders in the 2023 NASCAR postseason. How will our four finalists fare in the Valley of the Sun? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure: either Kyle Larson will become a 2x Cup Series Champion or somebody will sign their name in the NASCAR history books and score their first Cup Series title. And we, here at the Daily Downforce will be there for you to cover it all next weekend.
Daily Downforce readers! What about your brackets? Did any from your original Final 4 make it to the Championship Round? How do you think our 4 title contenders will fare at Phoenix? Who’s got the best shot to win it all? Let us know in the comments on all our social media sites! We’ll see you right here next week for Championship Weekend!