MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — Ryan Blaney raced his way into a chance at a championship, winning the Xfinity 500 NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia.
The No. 12 Team Penske Ford driver passed Aric Almirola with 23 laps remaining around the venerable half-mile track to win for the third time in 2023 and 10th time in his career.
His victory in the final Round of 8 playoff race earned him a spot in the Championship 4 event next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where Blaney, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and William Byron will race for the season championship.
“All you want is a shot at a championship. You get your shot when the playoffs start, you have a shot. But then your real shot is if you get to Phoenix, right?” Blaney said. “It´s just nice to have an opportunity to actually race for a championship.
“I don´t think you can ever count anybody else out, any team out. It´s about peaking at the right time. Our group is doing that.”
Byron, who led the Cup Series with six wins this season, earned the fourth and final slot in the championship by limping to a 13th-place finish.
Byron had padded his position with bonus points earned all season and edged Denny Hamlin, who finished third at Martinsville, by eight points to qualify for NASCAR’s championship.
Blaney and Byron will race Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where the Cup championship will go to the highest-finishing driver.
Larson and Byron gave Hendrick Motorsports a pair of Chevrolets in the final four, Bell is in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Blaney drives a Ford for Team Penske. Blaney can give Roger Penske back-to-back titles following Joey Logano’s win last year.
Larson is the only driver in the field with a Cup title and returns to the final four for the second time in three years. Bell is back in the championship for the second consecutive year; Blaney and Byron are racing for the Cup title for the first time.
Byron said his helmet fan stopped working during the race and he dropped to the ground outside his car following the race.
“It’s our worst race of the year,” Byron said. “With 50 (laps) to go, I felt really, really bad and I just had to drive the hell out of it. The guys stuck with me and just kept motivating me through, little bits and pieces, and just keeping my mind straight.”
Hamlin was pretty much in a must-win situation after a mechanical failure last week caused him to crash and dropped him below the cutoff line for elimination at Martinsville. He wasted no time going after the win and led a race-high 156 laps.
“I´m not counting points. I´m doing everything I can to win. Everything,” Hamlin radioed before the final stage.
But Hamlin lost ground after the final round of pit stops – when he and Blaney each took four tires – and he never could work his way back through the traffic to challenge for the win. Hamlin was also eliminated from championship contention at Martinsville last year on a last-lap Hail Mary move by Ross Chastain.