MARTINSVILLE, Va. – As Ryan Blaney celebrated a win at Martinsville that sent him to the Championship 4, Denny Hamlin leaned on his car and stared silently.
For the second consecutive season, he failed to advance to the championship race despite having one of the better cars in the field.
Hamlin, Tyler Reddick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chris Buescher all were eliminated from championship contention after Sunday’s race at Martinsville.
Hamlin said Saturday that he wouldn’t play defense at Martinsville. He would be on offense from the moment the race started. He was true to his word.
Hamlin led 156 laps and won stage 1. He was second in stage 2. Hamlin had a car capable of winning. It just wasn’t as good as Blaney’s car.
“I was just really happy with my performance,” Hamlin said on pit road. “It’s so different. I can’t tell you the mindset of years I’ve had where I (expletive) up and I knew that I kept us from going to the next round.”
Hamlin was consistent throughout the playoffs. He posted five top-10 finishes, four top fives and one win in the first eight playoff races.
The turning point for Hamlin’s playoffs was Homestead. He crashed and finished 30th after a steering issue sent him into the outside wall.
Hamlin fell to 17 points below the cutline heading into Sunday’s elimination race. He ended the day eight points behind William Byron, who took the final transfer spot after finishing 13th with no stage points.
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Truex won the regular-season championship and advanced through the troublesome first two rounds with the points he accrued during the regular season. Once the field went down to eight drivers, there was no room for mistakes.
Truex’s finishes in the Round of 8 were ninth at Las Vegas, 29th at Homestead (engine) and 12th at Martinsville.
Truex started from the pole at Martinsville and led 47 laps. He was penalized for speeding on pit road after pitting under caution on Lap 219. That dropped him from the top three to outside the top 25 in the running order.
Truex gained five spots back before the end of stage 2. He lost them all during the stage break. His team had a slow pit stop after the jack fell.
“We've been fast at times, but execution hasn't been solid, hasn't been consistent,” Truex said. “We've had some bad luck. We've had a little bit of everything. Like I said, some years it feels like it's your year, some years it feels like it's not. I just feel we couldn't do anything right.”
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Reddick was never a factor during the elimination race. He spun during Saturday’s qualifying session and started 19th. He remained in the middle of the pack the entire race, finishing the first two stages 19th and 21st.
Reddick went one lap down multiple times. He was moved out of the way by Blaney and Erik Jones at different points of the race. Reddick finished 19th, furthest back of the playoff drivers.
“It was a tough day,” Reddick said. “We were having issues with voltage, and some of the cooling systems were cutting in and out. It got really, really hot – that is for sure, but it wasn’t going to waver my willingness to drive really, really hard there.”
Buescher entered Sunday’s race in a must-win situation after finishing 11th at Las Vegas and 21st at Homestead with no stage points in either race. He could not point his way into the Championship 4.
Buescher was 17th at the end of stage 1 and 14th at the end of stage 2 on Sunday at Martinsville. He moved into the top 10 after a two-tire pit stop on Lap 326.
Buescher couldn’t hold onto his track position during the final green flag run lasting 168 laps. Blaney and Hamlin both passed him. Buescher still crossed the finish line eighth in a career-best finish at Martinsville.
“I just wanted more, but I don’t think any of us will stand here right now and say we didn’t give it our all,” Buescher said. “I’m pretty satisfied with that part, but we wanted to go onto that next round. This round just didn’t do it for us. We didn’t quite hit everything on the head.”