A lot was going through Ryan Blaney’s mind during the final laps of the NASCAR Cup Series season’s penultimate race.
It felt like a caution was inevitable as the race wound down at Martinsville Speedway’s 0.526-mile oval. He’d easily be able to lose his position, as drivers could pit and fly past him. Even if he were to do nothing wrong, he could have ended up in a wreck that would ravage his year.
But the last yellow flag waved in Lap 324. More than the last third of Sunday’s 500-lap race was green, and Blaney held on and claimed a spot in the Championship 4.
“About Lap 499, figured we had a good shot at it,” Blaney said in a press conference in the Martinsville Speedway media center.
Blaney joins Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron in the Championship 4.
Aric Almirola came in second at Martinsville, his best Cup finish since winning the preseason Duel 2 at Daytona. Denny Hamlin took third, Chase Briscoe fourth and Joey Logano fifth.
In addition to reaching the Championship 4 for the first time in his career, winning at Martinsville was a long time coming for Blaney.
Growing up in High Point, N.C., he said he went to Martinsville often as a kid, watching his father, Dave, race there. He said in both his post-race interview on NBC and in the media center that Martinsville is the track he visited most, more so than Charlotte.
It’s also been his second-best track in the Cup Series, with an average finish of 5.7, placing in the Top 10 nine times in 15 starts.
But he’d never won there until Sunday.
“This place has just been so special to me, and Victory Lane has just eluded me for years and years,” Blaney said. “I felt like we could have won two or three of them. It just never happened. It felt like something always happened.
“But everything fell into place today, our car was fast and we were able to pull it off.”
Martin Truex Jr. fails to advance
The NASCAR Cup Series’ regular-season champion boasted just one Top 10 finish during an inconsistent playoffs. His previous success had kept him above the elimination line after each cutoff race, but he didn’t have enough points to advance past the Round of 8.
“It wasn’t our year,” Truex told reporters. “We gave it a hell of an effort. The car was really good today.”
Truex gave it his best effort, winning the pole for both Sunday’s race and last weekend’s at Homestead. He kept himself toward the front for much of the race at Martinsville until a speeding penalty derailed his chances.
With his pit stall at the front, on the inside of Turn 1, Truex received his penalty coming off pit road during a caution in Lap 210.
Once again, Denny Hamlin will not be a champion
Denny Hamlin was fast once again.
He led for 156 laps, even more than Blaney, who led for 145 laps. But ultimately, the 42-year-old driver failed to finish Sunday above the cut line despite a third-place finish.
“The 12 was just a little better than what we were today,” Hamlin told reporters. “Really good showing. But ultimately, our fate was sealed.”
Hamlin didn’t finish two races down the stretch, wrecking out at the Charlotte Roval and having a power steering failure last week at Homestead.