MARTINSVILLE, Va. — There was no celebration for Denny Hamlin after 500 hard-fought laps Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, and he wore a familiar shell-shocked look as he leaned against his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota post-race, the same one he sported after last year’s stunning playoff exit.
There was no immediate celebration for William Byron, either, after he forged through the heat of a long green-flag stretch to the end of Sunday’s Xfinity 500. He exited his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and dropped to the pit-road pavement for ice-cold water and a soaked towel, exhausted by the conditions and the intensity of his challenging but ultimately fruitful playoff pursuit.
Byron eked his way into the final spot in the Championship 4 field with a 13th-place outcome in Sunday’s elimination race at the 0.526-mile bullring, edging out third-finishing Denny Hamlin for the title opportunity by a scant eight points in the Cup Series Playoffs standings. Ryan Blaney bulled into the other remaining open berth with a sterling drive of his No. 12 Team Penske Ford to set the final-four postseason grid alongside Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell in next Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway. Hamlin joined JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick and RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher on the sidelines of title eligibility.
Byron eventually composed himself to savor the moment as he caught his breath sitting on the pit wall, receiving words of congratulations from Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon and teammate and fellow title contender Larson — both of whom acknowledged the difficulty of Byron’s Sunday drive.
“Really happy for my team. I can’t state that enough,” said Byron, who will have his first shot at competing for the Cup Series crown next weekend. “With like 50, 60 laps to go, man, I just couldn’t … it was so blurry in the car, and I just wanted to pull in, but you’re not going to do that. I was gonna have a failure do something first. Just really proud of the team. I can’t reiterate that enough. They gave me the opportunity, and this is my dream. I mean, I love to race cars. I didn’t grow up doing it, but I love what I do, and they believe in me.”
Byron entered the Round of 8 finale with a 30-point cushion, and he needed nearly every bit of it to advance. The 25-year-old hotshot leads the Cup Series with six wins this year, but the Martinsville weekend presented a struggle, and he set sail from a subpar 16th starting spot. Emblematically, Byron said he had a fitful night of little sleep on race-day eve, and he arrived at the Virginia short track with his stomach in a pit.
Improvements on his starting perch were modest and measured at best, and Byron missed out on adding any stage points to his buffer on the bubble with placements of 24th and 20th at the breaks.
“It was kind of hell in a bottle,” Byron said. “I’ve never been so mad at a race car. I’ve never wanted to get out so much. I’ve never been so frustrated at the car.”
While Blaney and Hamlin controlled large portions of the race up front, Byron was managing his own race further back with a margin that stood at just three points as he became more fatigued. No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle kept his driver engaged over the team communications, saying, “These are all spots here,” as he methodically added to his total.
“I mean, just total focus on everything he had and every little bit of energy he had,” Fugle said. “You can see it at the end of the race as he got out of the car. He did everything. He willed us to a win today. So, you know, disappointed and kind of embarrassed on how the car was for him today, but the team stuck with it, and we’ve got a shot next week.
“Certainly not the day the team from a performance perspective on track wanted, but championship-caliber teams at this time of year find a way to get done what they need to get done,” Hendrick Motorsports president and general manager Jeff Andrews told NASCAR.com. “I felt like a whole team from top to bottom under Rudy’s leadership, including William, just dug a little bit deeper today and executed. In these situations where points are so close, just no mistakes. When you know you don’t have the performance necessarily to go up there and lead laps and be competitive as you want to be, you just have to figure out a way to execute the rest of your day flawlessly, and they did that.”
There was no catching Blaney for Hamlin, who ended up on the last step of the podium behind a strategy-aided Aric Almirola, who drove home a season-best second a day after announcing he’d leave his Stewart-Haas Racing team at year’s end. Hamlin had led a race-high 156 laps — just 11 more than Blaney — and finished first and second in the stages to offset the 17-point deficit he started with Sunday and his crippling DNF from last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin had bettered his playoff chances throughout the day but was 4.140 seconds back of Blaney’s winning car at the checkered flag. “Missed it by eight points,” said No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart on the radio during the cool-down lap. “Had a good race, just let ourselves down last week, but the effort was there. Yet another year where we should have made it and didn’t.”
“He definitely had the best car. We were next in line,” Hamlin said of Blaney. “And you know, I just wouldn’t do anything different. There’s nothing I could have done, I feel like, through these playoffs to be any different. And then on a day where we had to have a phenomenal day, we did; it just, it wasn’t quite good enough because we were in such a hole last week.”
Buescher and Reddick did not contend for victory Sunday, with Buescher placing eighth and Reddick faltering to 26th with voltage and cooling issues on his No. 45 Toyota to finish two laps down. Truex was a factor early, but his playoff-hindering trouble arrived in Stage 2.
The regular-season champ started from the pole and led the opening 47 laps, but his solid standing among the top three faded with a pit-road speeding penalty on Lap 219, forcing him to restart 27th. He regained five spots by the end of the second stage, but his No. 19 Toyota fell off the jack during his next stop, further stalling his progress.
A 12th-place finish left him 28 points back of the elimination line.
“You can’t speed on pit road, go to the back here and make it up,” said Truex, who won two poles but has placed no better than ninth (Las Vegas) through the nine playoff races so far. “I feel like we did good for where we got to. Our car was really fast, and we always got to the next guy, just could never pass. So, that one’s on me. I didn’t think we were speeding, but obviously we were. First time we ever had that pit stall, and (crew chief James Small) told me four reds (lights on his tachometer), I’d be safe leaving my box, and I went to two, and we’re speeding, so a little confusion there. But just one of those years. It wasn’t our year. We gave it a hell of an effort. The car was really good today. I think we were good enough to run second or third, but I think Blaney was class of the field, so they earned that one.”