Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Ryan Blaney advances to Phoenix with Martinsville victory

On Saturday, Aric Almirola announced he will retire from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of 2023. He had an opportunity for a storybook ending the following day when he took the lead with less than 100 laps remaining at Martinsville Speedway, but Ryan Blaney had other plans.

Blaney, racing on newer tyres, passed Almirola with twenty-three laps left to secure his career-tying third win of the year and assure himself of spot in the Championship Round. It will be his first appearance in the final round.

He was already ten points above the cut line entering Martinsville, but the victory locked him into the finale alongside the already-clinched Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell. William Byron also qualified on points.

“The last twenty laps, all that goes through your head is there’s going to be a yellow, there’s going to be a yellow, it’s going to screw up the whole race, people are going to stay out, people are going to take no tyres, there’s going to be four cautions to end this thing. Hopefully you don’t get moved, spun, wrecked, ruin your year,” recounted Blaney. “That’s the only thing going through your head, right?

“Just get to the white was the only thing that really concerned me at the time. Running down the #10, I was running harder. I think everyone just kind of fell off pretty good, and I saved my stuff early where I could get through traffic pretty good. It benefited us later in the run.”

Almirola took the lead from Chase Elliott on lap 412 while running an alternate pit strategy that placed him on older tyres and less fuel than others, though he had enough to complete the race. Unfortunately for him, Blaney quickly closed in before passing him. Larson used a similar strategy and finished sixth.

While the runner-up finish is his best of the season, it was surely a letdown as he hoped to go out on a strong note. Next Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix will be his final opportunity to end his full-time career with at least a strong performance.

“Honestly, I’m just sad,” Almirola admitted. “We had a good car. We just fought track position. Qualifying kind of set us behind and then when we finally cycled to the front and got track position we had a great race car. I was being so patient and taking care of my tyres. I wasn’t slipping a tyre. I wasn’t doing anything to hurt my tyres and they just started to give up on me there towards the end, and the #12, his car would hold on a little longer. I’m not sure if he was on four tires or two tires. We were on two tires with some pretty old lefts, so I don’t know if that was the difference or not.

“I’m just really proud and really proud of this team. I wanted that one so bad. I got my family here. My grandparents here that helped me get my start in racing. I wanted so bad to celebrate with my family in Victory Lane.”

Despite finishing third, Denny Hamlin‘s search for his first championship will have to wait another year as he was eliminated as were Chris Buescher, Martin Truex Jr., and Tyler Reddick. Truex won the pole for Martinsville but his title hopes came undone by a speeding penalty. Elliott’s #9 was knocked out of the owner playoffs, meaning the final four in Phoenix for that championship is the same as on the driver’s side.

Race results

Finish Start Number Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Status
1 11 12 Ryan Blaney Team Penske Ford 500 Running
2 12 10 Aric Almirola Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 500 Running
3 4 11 Denny Hamlin Joe GIbbs Racing Toyota 500 Running
4 3 14 Chase Briscoe Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 500 Running
5 15 22 Joey Logano Team Penske Ford 500 Running
6 5 5 Kyle Larson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 500 Running
7 7 20 Christopher Bell Joe GIbbs Racing Toyota 500 Running
8 18 17 Chris Buescher RFK Racing Ford 500 Running
9 21 2 Austin Cindric Team Penske Ford 500 Running
10 17 38 Todd Gilliland Front Row Motorsports Ford 500 Running
11 6 23 Bubba Wallace 23XI Racing Toyota 500 Running
12 1 19 Martin Truex Jr. Joe GIbbs Racing Toyota 500 Running
13 16 24 William Byron Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 499 Running
14 13 1 Ross Chastain Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 499 Running
15 28 21 Harrison Burton Wood Brothers Racing Ford 499 Running
16 8 4 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 499 Running
17 14 9 Chase Elliott Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 499 Running
18 2 54 Ty Gibbs Joe GIbbs Racing Toyota 499 Running
19 20 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 499 Running
20 9 41 Ryan Preece Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 499 Running
21 29 43 Erik Jones Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 499 Running
22 30 7 Corey LaJoie Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 499 Running
23 26 3 Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 499 Running
24 34 77 Ty Dillon Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 499 Running
25 23 34 Michael McDowell Front Row Motorsports Ford 499 Running
26 19 45 Tyler Reddick 23XI Racing Toyota 498 Running
27 31 8 Kyle Busch Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 498 Running
28 25 16 A.J. Allmendinger Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 498 Running
29 33 51 Ryan Newman* Rick Ware Racing Ford 497 Running
30 24 31 Justin Haley Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 497 Running
31 32 42 Carson Hocevar* Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 496 Running
32 22 48 Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 496 Running
33 10 6 Brad Keselowski RFK Racing Ford 306 Running
34 27 99 Daniel Suárez Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 274 DVP
35 35 15 J.J. Yeley* Rick Ware Racing Ford 271 Accident
36 36 78 B.J. McLeod* Live Fast Motorsports Chevrolet 147 Overheating
Bold – Currently in playoffs
Underline – Eliminated from playoffs
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for points