NASCAR's playoff push down to the madness of Martinsville with Hamlin and Truex title hopes on line

Denny Hamlin elevated his game this year with the aid of a microphone and a popular new podcast that unveils the insights of the driver considered the best in NASCAR history to never win a Cup Series title.

He has held nothing back in his weekly “Actions Detrimental” podcast produced by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s media company, and along the way has sounded like a guy about to make his 18th season the one that ends the hex.

A mechanical failure last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway has put Hamlin's season on the line as he heads into the last qualifying race for NASCAR's title-deciding finale. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have claimed the first of four spots in the championship race, and Hamlin finds himself tied with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. at 17 points below the cutline headed into Sunday's showdown at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.

Martinsville is Hamlin's favorite track. The Virginia-raised driver has five career wins at the paperclip-shaped short track, and even though a victory is his only guaranteed path into the finale, he said it is not a must-win race. Hamlin and regular-season champion Truex can both advance without a win but must somehow overcome their points deficit.

“I'm not,” Hamlin said on his podcast of being in a must-win situation, “but I guarantee you I will be on kill right from the get-go and treat it as a must win.”

Six drivers are vying for the final two slots in the finale. William Byron is a safe bet to advance based on the bonus points he's accumulated, and Ryan Blaney is Ford's best hope at getting a car into the championship.

Hamlin, Truex, fellow Toyota driver Tyler Reddick — he drives for Hamlin and MIchael Jordan's 23XI Racing — sit below the cutoff with Chris Buescher of RFK Racing.

Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports have one driver through with Larson, the 2021 Cup champion. Toyota and Gibbs are already represented in the finale by Bell, Larson's longtime dirt rival.


KYLE LARSON, clinched a spot with win at Las Vegas.

What's Ahead: Larson is already locked into the finale for the second time in three years, and it's given him breathing room to prepare for Phoenix. At Homestead last week, he ran into the sand barrels entering pit road.

Martinsville History: Larson won at Martinsville in the spring in one of four victories this season. He was second in last year's race but had already been eliminated from the playoffs.

CHRISTOPHER BELL, clinched with win at Homestead.

What's Ahead: Bell is racing in the championship finale for the second consecutive year. Bell also finished second to Larson at Las Vegas and has had the strongest round of eight of all playoff drivers.

Martinsville History: Bell needed to win Martinsville last year to make the championship race, and pulled it off with his second “walk-off” win of the playoffs.


WILLIAM BYRON, 30 points above the cutline.

What's Ahead: Byron is in strong position to make the finale based on his points cushion, but a bad day Sunday could ruin his shot at joining Hendrick teammate Larson with a pair of Chevys racing for the Cup.

Martinsville History: Byron won at Martinsville in 2022 and has six top-10 finishes in 11 career starts. His worst finish was 39th in a crash in his 2018 rookie season.

RYAN BLANEY, 10 points above the cutline.

What's Ahead: Blaney is the last Ford driver with a chance from heavyweights Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, and is coming off a second-place finish at Homestead. He's been surprisingly strong on intermediate tracks, where Ford has struggled as an organization, and now puts his season on the line at a short track. He should be competitive.

Martinsville History: Blaney is winless in 15 career starts at Martinsville, but his ninth-place average finish is strong. Should none of the drivers below him in the standings win, Blaney is in good shape to make the final four.


TYLER REDDICK, 10 points below the cutline.

What's Ahead: Reddick has been really good for 23XI in the round of eight with a finish of eighth at Las Vegas and third at Homestead. It's not been enough to put his name in the championship conversation.

Martinsville History: His best finish is 18th in seven previous starts. Reddick is also in trouble because his competition is generally considered among the best at Martinsville.

MARTIN TRUEX Jr., 17 points below the cutline.

What's Ahead: Truex has had a horrible playoffs. After a ninth-place finish at Las Vegas came a blown engine at Homestead as the misery continued for the regular-season champion. He probably needs to win Martinsville to make the finale.

Martinsville History: Truex has three wins at Martinsville, second among active drivers only to Gibbs teammate Hamlin. But the No. 19 team has done next to nothing right through eight races, putting Truex's season on the line.

DENNY HAMLIN, 17 points below the cutline.

What's Ahead: Hamlin had one bad race — 30th last week at Homestead — and he is in big trouble. It's time for him to put up or shut up in this season in which he's done a lot of talking.

Martinsville History: This is the track for Hamlin to pull off a miracle. He leads all active drivers in wins, top-five finishes, top 10s and laps led at Martinsville. He should be in the mix Sunday.

CHRIS BUESCHER, 43 points below the cutline.

What's Ahead: Buescher has overperformed in making it to the round of eight for rebuilt RFK Racing. The organization has made considerable leaps with Brad Keselowski among the ownership group, but this is about as far as an RFK entry is likely to get right now.

Martinsville History: Buescher is 0 for 16 at Martinsville, with an average finish of 19th. He's probably the only driver truly in a must-win situation Sunday.


AP auto racing: