Playoff pressure on full display at Homestead-Miami in messy race for title contenders

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – There weren’t many happy drivers to be found on pit road following Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 NASCAR Playoffs Round of 8 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway – and we’re not even in Martinsville yet.

You’ll get that in a sport where there are 30-plus losers and only one driver spraying champagne in Victory Lane, but, still, the playoff pressure is mounting. And evident.

Sunday’s 400-miler was yet another entry in this 10-race Cup Series playoff run won by a driver outside the postseason field, seeing one more opportunity dry up for the seven remaining championship-eligible drivers to clinch their spot in Phoenix Raceway’s Championship 4 race via a win alongside Joey Logano, the only driver currently locked in. In a race littered with late mistakes, drivers were beating themselves up in their post-race debriefs with media, focusing on what needs to be cleaned up before they try to all survive next weekend’s looming chaos at the paperclip-shaped Virginia short track.

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“(We’re not snake-bitten), just a lot of self-induced (mistakes),” said Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney after a promising run with yet another fast race car was derailed by error. “Two weeks bonehead-driver induced. So that part definitely stinks. Just the driver making mistakes. Team does a great job getting our car better again, had a fast car and I wrecked last week by myself and I downshift this week coming off pit road so just disappointed in myself.”

On Lap 211, Blaney saw his No. 12 Ford spin leaving the access road coming out of the pits, the result of an accidental downshift from high to low gear. It came not long after Blaney was running in the P2 position, a potential result that would’ve put him in a reasonably comfortable position heading into next Sunday’s Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway, a track at which he owns the best average finish (10.2) among active drivers.

Instead of what was shaping up to be exactly the kind of rebound race the No. 12 team needed to escape the hole of minus-11 points to the bubble heading into Homestead, he leaves the 305 with an even deeper deficit at minus-18.

“Being as many points as we are out, you know you hope you can … it’s kind of like a must-win,” Blaney said. “I don’t see us making up that many points, so just go try to put yourself in a position to win the race. I don’t think we can point our way in, honestly. I think we’re too far out. So just gonna go do the best you can, you never know what’s gonna happen. Just try to run up front, put yourself in a spot to win the race. That’s all you can do.”

While far from a banner day for the No. 24 Chevrolet team, fellow playoff contender William Byron also had a bit of an up-and-down day, showing strength in both of the opening stages (2nd, 3rd, respectively) before a major hiccup by his team on pit road nearly washed it all away. A loose wheel during a Lap 207 pit stop necessitated a reversal by the No. 24 driver to get it tightened, which subsequently was followed by his Chevy stalling briefly as he attempted to drive off again. He recovered to finish a respectable 12th, but if it weren’t for those stage points and a fast car to race back through the field he could’ve been looking at perhaps a must-win situation in Virginia.

“We just kind of had a couple of runs that were worse than the others and just had that one run that I felt like we were struggling real bad,” Byron said. “And then we kind of got better at the end and had something again at the end so I don’t know, just kind of really struggled the one time and the rest of the race was pretty good.”

After heading into Sunday six points down below the elimination line, Byron now leaves Miami five points to the good to position both remaining Hendrick Motorsports cars (the other being 2020 champ Chase Elliott) provisionally in the title race.

There’s still one race remaining before that Championship 4 is finalized, however, but as the untouchable winner in Martinsville’s spring race, the chances to make it through are favorable.

“(We plan to attack Martinsville) just the same,” Byron said. “I mean, I honestly feel like it’s a good place for us. So we just got to try to approach it the same as we always do.

“I don’t think (we need to win) but we just need a really good day. I feel decent about it. I think we just have to … like, we had a test there and I felt like our car was decent. We just got to work on a couple of little things and just get a little bit better. Because everyone’s gonna get better from the spring. So I think if we do that we’ll be in good shape.”

Those that will have a shot to fight for the 2022 title will be decided next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – and we should only expect four drivers to be smiling after that one, too.