Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway was being billed as the wild-card race of the Round of 8’s three races but for Martin Truex Jr. it was the perfect stop of the three-race stretch that also includes stops at Texas and Phoenix.
Truex Jr. dominated the race as he led 456 laps of the race’s 500 laps on the very narrow .526-mile track which features very flat turns and one of the toughest pit roads on the entire schedule.
The safest place for a driver at Martinsville to be is out front as the rest of the field is either leaning on each other in the turns or using the bumper to move another car out of the way in order to make a pass.
Truex Jr. took that winning formula to heart as he led 464 laps of the race’s 500 laps.
He first took the lead on lap 30 when the first caution flag came out and race leader Denny Hamlin’s crew had problems changing driver’s side tires.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver came out in first and only surrendered the lead for six laps when Kyle Larson stayed out on the track at the end of the second stage.
Even as dominating as Truex Jr. was on the day, he still had to endure ten more Martinsville caution flags which always results in some of the wildest restarts of the season.
While the beating and banging was ensured on every restart, it always took place behind him as he was able to safely escape the pack in his Toyota every time the green flag waved to restart the race.
The win now automatically advances him as one of the four drivers who will make up the Championship 4 that will go to Homestead-Miami with the opportunity to race for the title.
The remaining three spots will be determined over the next two races but one thing for sure at this point no driver wants to try and advance because of his position in the points.
The Round of 12 showed that no position in the points is safe as Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney both advanced into this Round because of their unexpected wins.
Denny Hamlin sits in second, 24 points above the cut-off line and seven points ahead of his teammate Kyle Busch who sits 17 points above the cutoff line.
Busch entered the race as the leader in points and at one point in the race was working his way into the top-5 when he got caught up in a wreck with Aric Almirola that led to a 14th place finish.
The finish continues somewhat of a slump for Busch and his crew as he last took a checkered flag at the June Pocono race.
Joey Logano holds down the fourth and final spot above the cut-off line with a 14-point margin. He was also involved in a heated post-race discussion with Denny Hamlin over an incident that happened on lap 458 when the two drivers got together with Logano ending up hitting the outside wall.
Even with the damage to his car, he was able to work his way to a seventh place finish. Immediately after the race Logano went to Hamlin on pit road and a discussion between the two ended with the two having to be pulled apart after Hamlin responded to a push on the shoulder by Logano.
Kevin Harvick (-14), Ryan Blaney(-15), Kyle Larson (-24) and Chase Elliott (-44) all enter Texas this weekend below the cut-off line knowing that the only sure path to the Championship 4 may be by ending up in victory lane.
Even a pair of top-5 finishes over the next two races might not put them above the cut-off line as they would also need for a couple of drivers above the cut-off line to post bad finishes for them to make the move to become one of the Championship 4.
Kevin Harvick would have to be the favorite to make the move up this weekend as he has been the hottest driver at Texas since the track was repaved 5 races ago.
Since then he has posted 4 top-five finishes and five top-10’s which gives him a 3.2 finishing average over that span.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.