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The stage is set to decide NASCAR’s final four at Martinsville

NASCAR: Cup Practice and Qualifying

Any version of Sunday night that ends with Martin Truex Jr. making the NASCAR Cup Series championship race without winning at Martinsville required immediate track position and he earned it alongside the pole on Saturday.

The track position is important because it has proven incredibly challenging to pass at Martinsville since the rollout of the seventh-generation car and Truex now has the inside track to score maximum stage points if he can keep the lead.

Combined with Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick starting the race from outside the top-10 and there could be an additional pathway to the championship that doesn’t include winning … not that he looks at it that way.

“I think 17 (points) is a long ways out,” Truex said. “Maybe if we could win both stages, it might change things around but we will just wait and see. I don’t think stages are really on my radar right now but we were certainly take them if we can get them.”

Playoff grid

Kyle Larson Advanced
Christopher Bell Advanced
William Byron +30
Ryan Blaney +10

Tyler Reddick -10
Denny Hamlin -17
Martin Truex Jr. -17
Chris Buescher -43

A reminder of how this works: The lowest four in the standings without a win will race amongst themselves for the championship in a full field race next weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have already locked in with victories at Las Vegas and Homestead. William Byron at 30 points above the cutline is in a relative safe place as long as nothing disastrous happens. If he finishes the race in the top-20, he’s in and any stage points would be a bonus cushion.

That leaves Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick racing on points for the final spot unless Truex or Denny Hamlin can score a good number of stage points with the former scoring none.

The latter became a plausible outcome in qualifying as Reddick spun and Blaney was unable to make the pole shootout and will start 11th.  Reddick will start 19th.

New tire, warm weather

It’s no secret that the short track races have been a struggle for the NASCAR industry under the second-year new car due to the lower horsepower, increased aerodynamics, larger brakes and a gear ratio that encourages shifting.

NASCAR has battled it for two years via downforce reductions and Goodyear tire changes with the latter this weekend providing the most optimism.

The combination taken to the track this weekend is the one most recently tested at Richmond Raceway in August and was the change that made drivers the most optimistic about improvements even more so than a splitter intended to create drag for a leading car.

The race weather will also be an uncharacteristically hot 80-plus degrees and that should make the track slicker. The cars were laying down rubber during practice and these were all things everyone would want to see in advance of the Xfinity 500.

Truex was optimistic.

“There was definitely a lot of rubber down today, which I think is great,” Truex said. “It is going to help us race well tomorrow, move around and make some passes. I thought the bottom groove really got rubbered in and got slick, which is typically what happens when the race is really good, so I think that is a good sign.”

For his part, Buescher wasn’t so sure after practice.

“I didn’t do the test and so from my point of view it probably doesn’t feel a whole lot different than I remember,” Buescher said. “Obviously, that was a long time ago and it’s a lot warmer this time around to Martinsville, so it certainly looks like it’s laying a lot more rubber down, so later in the run it was getting a little slicker, maybe widening out a touch more quickly, but I think we would have said the same thing with the previous tire just with a little warmer weather.

“I’m not sure how to exactly dissect that right now.”

Earlier in the day, Denny Hamlin was adamant that the industry just needs to agree on a horsepower increase for next season.

“I think the easiest lever, and I don’t know for sure why we haven’t done it (because) I think Doug Yates mentioned it – is we can go to 750 horsepower tomorrow,” Hamlin said. “The parts and pieces won’t change if we just open up the tapered spacer to 750 like we had, year before last. I think that is the quickest thing and then work on the gearing – the gearing is not going to be an easy fix.

“I specifically harp on it quite a bit, but it’s not going to be an easy fix.”

Hamlin says NASCAR presented options to eliminate the shifting from Martinsville but that option would lower RPMs so much that drivers couldn’t wear the tires out, which would have an equally negative effect on the racing product.

“We would never wear out a tire,” Hamlin said. “The horsepower and torque would be so low that by the time you got to the end of the straightaway and wound out the RPMs – that’s not an easy fix either. It’s not going to fix it by just dropping the gear. It would take time to figure it out, and certainly there is a lot of smart minds that are trying to figure it out.

“In my opinion, it’s not an aero situation. We are going to run quite a different tire this weekend that will undoubtably make it really hard to pass because of the speed it runs with the lack of fall off. I don’t know. It’s tough because we have cut 300 horsepower out and added grip with the wider tire.

“Anything that we do that, there is more on-throttle time. The key is to better short track racing is off-throttle time, and no one really has a great answer on how to do it.”

From his vantage point from the NBC television booth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks and hopes this tire will make a difference, because it’s important to get short track racing right for the overall Cup Series product.

“I applaud them to get this tire here this weekend, at a critical point, because typically when it’s this far into the season and so much on the line, any kind of rule change is shelved until next year,” Earnhardt said. “But to their credit, they saw the urgency that everyone has begged them for.

“They hear drivers and fans when everyone says we can’t have the kind of racing on short tracks we have the past two years, and they tried really hard at Richmond with a lot of ideas they thought would bear fruit but didn’t.

“All that I hear, is even if we find an answer, to get those parts and pieces to everyone is a long process — it could take six or 12 months to get here. So thank you to Goodyear and NASCAR for trying a tire that might be better. It might not be. But watching pracitce and seeing how much rubber it laid down, I think it might be, certainly better than what we’ve had.

“It’s got to be better than the 3000 mile tire. You want that thing to wear out, rubber up the track and have marbles, get slimy and Blaney said it when he said he hopes the track widens out because that gives him the opportunity to pass. And the past two years, everyone has just been riding around on the bottom, you can’t pass and that’s what everyone is trying to make better.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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