Two weeks ago, Ryan Blaney was told that he had been disqualified from an excellent finish in the first playoff race of the Round of Eight. If the result had held, he would have effectively needed to win one of the next two races to make his first-ever Championship Four and fight for his first NASCAR championship. The disqualification was overturned a day later, but Blaney went out and won one of those races anyway.
Ryan Blaney came into today's NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville knowing that he would need to pass William Byron, 20 points ahead in the Cup Series standings, if he wanted to make the field on points. He ran fourth heading into the event and could have still made the field without that result, but the likelihood that another eligible playoff driver from outside the top four could win the race and eliminate the second spot available for a driver to make the next round on points was too high to risk it. Byron struggled early and often, so Blaney was able to effectively erase that lead with strong finishes in both stages.
That meant he was already more or less in position to advance whether he won or not, but Denny Hamlin was not so lucky. Hamlin, one of the four drivers behind Blaney but alive for a championship if he could find a way into the field, knew that a win was his only real way into the Championship Four. He scored huge points in both stages and briefly led Byron in the standings, but Byron was able to climb back out of the danger zone with an eventual modest finish of 13th and put pressure on Hamlin to catch and pass Blaney to win. Hamlin had a shot on the final stint, but Blaney moved better through a massive field of slower cars on older tires and held a five-second gap on his playoff rival throughout the closing laps of the race.
Blaney caught and passed a retiring Aric Almirola to win the race. Hamlin could not even reach Almirola's bumper before the end, leaving him a few points short of a bid without a win and many seconds behind the winner. That left him eliminated, alongside Chris Buescher, his employee Tyler Reddick, and his teammate, Martin Truex Jr. It was the second year in a row that Hamlin was eliminated at Martinsville, although this year's defeat was not quite as dramatic as the moment Ross Chastain got the better of him by riding the outside wall last season.
That means Blaney and Byron will join Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell in the next round, with one of the four set to be crowned as a NASCAR Cup Series champion next Sunday. Of the four, only Larson has a championship to his name. Bell is the only other driver in the group to have a previous Championship Four appearance, finishing third in the standings last year. Byron and Blaney have career best previous championship finishes of sixth and seventh, respectively.
As this rule set dictates, all four enter that race with an equal shot at a championship and stage points are irrelevant for the group. The top finisher of the four will be a champion, the other three will go home disappointed.
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