We’ve reached the penultimate race of the 2023 NASCAR season. After an exciting weekend at Homestead-Miami, we have just two races left. Christopher Bell, who has been vocal about his own struggles at Homestead, shocked everyone with his win on Sunday. He, along with Kyle Larson, is locked into the championship race in Phoenix. Give how great the Toyotas have been this year, it’s somewhat surprising that someone like Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, or even Tyler Reddick will miss the championship race. But we turn our attention to Martinsville. Last year this race made waves around the sports world with Ross Chastain’s brilliant move to catapult him into the championship race. That move is no longer allowed. But at the time, it was genius. It was a video game-esque move and it paid off. Let’s see which drivers we like in this week’s Xfinity 500 preview.
Martinsville is one of a handful of tracks that gets two races each year. It’s such a staple on the NASCAR schedule. The winner receives a towering grandfather clock. The hotdogs sold at this track are apparently delicious. It’s probably in my top three tracks I’d love to visit someday. And on top of it all, it’s a very technical short track. It’s a half-mile in length with just 12 degrees of banking in the turns. You need to be perfect here, similar to Bristol. The two tracks have nothing in common aside from how troubling it can be if you lose the lead lap. Cautions come out quickly given the lack of runoff and space. But racing at Martinsville is always exciting as we saw last year. Here are the top drivers to keep in mind heading into practice and qualifying.
Xfinity 500 Preview: The Top Picks
Martin Truex Jr. (#19 Toyota)
Let’s get this out of the way, he’s been awful in the playoffs. He now finds himself 17 points below the cut line for the championship. By all accounts, he sounds defeated. He has just one top-10 finish in the playoffs. He’s only still alive because he’s the regular season champion. If there’s a race he can pull out a win and move on, it’s Martinsville. This track is sort of his namesake. He’s won here three times since 2019 but hasn’t led a lap in his three races here in the NextGen car. For as much credit as I give the Toyotas for their intermediate performances, JGR specifically thrives on short, flat tracks. MTJ dominated and won New Hampshire in this aero package over the summer. He finished third here in the Spring, but his average track position was 17.
Ryan Blaney (#12 Ford)
Blaney had a good run at Homestead last week. He led 53 laps and finished second. But the setup was great and with a couple more laps, he could’ve run down Christopher Bell. He’s currently 10 points above the cut line. He will definitely be racing for stage points. 10 points is a good cushion heading into this race, but it doesn’t mean he’s a lock. If any of the bottom four playoff drivers win, he doesn’t qualify for Phoenix. The good news is that his results are consistent here. In the NextGen car he has a 4.6 average finish. Given how easy it is to lose the lead lap at this track, it’s impressive that in the Spring he started P31 and finished seventh.
William Byron (#24 Chevrolet)
Byron probably doesn’t need a win to move on. He is currently 30 points to the good in the playoff standings. So he can probably just race for stage points and be okay. But every driver still wants to get the grandfather clock. Byron does have a win here in the NextGen car and he’s won on a variety of tracks this year. He may get overlooked because he may just go racing for stage points and a good finish. But there’s still win equity here. And next week is a track he won at earlier this year.
Xfinity 500 Preview: Wouldn’t Bet Against Them
Kyle Larson (#5 Chevrolet)
If Larson wasn’t already in the playoffs, he’d probably be in the section above. Last year he was in a similar position. He won at Homestead and was locked into the championship race. And yet at Martinsville, he won the pole, led 68 laps, and finished second. This is a great opportunity for Larson and his team to test what they have with their “short track” package. He won this race in the Spring but didn’t necessarily have the best car. He may actually be a nice leverage play. Several DFS players could assume he’s taking it easy and looking ahead to Phoenix. It’s entirely possible that he is looking ahead but trying to re-calibrate his style of driving for shorter, flat tracks. He was a favorite of mine for Homestead, but I’ll go back to him again.
Denny Hamlin (#11 Toyota)
I guess you could say there’s a “revenge game” narrative for Hamlin this weekend. When Chastain made that phenomenal move last year, it effectively kicked Denny out of the championship race. Hamlin has raced here 35 times in his career. He has five wins but the last came over eight years ago. Both he and Truex are 17 points below the cut line. They’ll both likely need to win, yet both have that ceiling. In three of his last five races here he’s led over 100 laps, including 203 in this race last Fall. Hamlin’s no stranger to winning on short, flat tracks. In a race where a win looks like a must, he could very well rise to the occasion.
Joey Logano (#22 Ford)
Obviously, we prefer his teammate, Ryan Blaney, a bit more. Blaney simply has more to race for this weekend. But Logano somehow falls into great track position here. He won this race five years ago while leading over 300 laps. In the NextGen car, he’s finished second here (twice) and sixth last Fall. I don’t normally associate Logano with being a short-track specialist. But his results stand out. In his last 19 races here, he has nine finishes in the top five. Several DFS players will try to cram in playoff drivers. Logano is a potential leverage play if he’s overlooked because he’s already been eliminated.
Xfinity 500 Preview: The Sleepers
Ross Chastain (#1 Chevrolet)
We will see highlights of Chastain’s move over and over on Sunday. We will probably get sick of it. He’s hardly a sleeper because NBC will shove the highlights from last year down our throats. It was awesome. It was something we hadn’t seen before and it was brilliant at the moment. But if we zoom out we’ll see a driver who has done very well at Martinsville in the NextGen car. In the Spring of 2022, he started P27 and finished fifth. Last Fall, we all know what happened. He slingshot his car to a top-five finish on the last lap. This past Spring, he started P31 and finished 13th but did lead over 30 laps. In two instances he’s driven through the field and finished well. That’s not easy to do. Despite being out of the playoffs this year, he’s a dark horse in this race.
Aric Almirola (#10 Ford)
Almirola is hardly a “sleeper” in the true sense of the word. Most NASCAR fans know that he thrives on short, flat tracks. That’s why over the next couple of weeks he’ll be mentioned in most DFS articles across the industry. In the NextGen car he has a pair of top 10 finishes at Martinsville and he’s yet to finish worse than 15th at Martinsville in this car. This year, he finished 13th at Richmond-1, eighth at Richmond-2, and he was sixth here in the Spring. He even surprised everyone by winning New Hampshire a couple of years ago. He has some momentum on his side. He’ll be a cheap play, but he also hasn’t finished worse than 18th in the playoffs. It’s been another forgetful season for SHR, but Almirola gets to wrap up the 2023 campaign with two tracks that cater to his strengths.
Chase Briscoe (#14 Ford)
Briscoe has been surprisingly great at Martinsville. So it only makes sense that he does poorly this time around. Briscoe has three top-10 finishes at Martinsville in the NextGen car. In the Spring of this year, he led over 100 laps, finished fifth, and had a 125.8 driver rating. While Kyle Larson did get the win, it was a surprisingly great day for SHR. Even at Phoenix in the Spring he grabbed a top 10 after winning the 2022 Spring race. Shorter, flat tracks are a strong point for SHR. These drivers will be cheap but have plenty of upside over the next two weeks.