William Byron, Denny Hamlin bring bubble battle to Round of 8 finale at Martinsville

William Byron, Denny Hamlin bring bubble battle to Round of 8 finale at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Seven of the eight drivers who still hold Cup Series title aspirations remain in limbo heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. The two closest to the provisional elimination line — on opposite sides — have been tethered together on multiple levels.

Just five points separate William Byron on the plus end and Denny Hamlin on the outside of the playoff bubble entering Sunday’s Xfinity 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) — the last race in the postseason’s Round of 8. The title-eligible field will be chopped from eight to four after the 500-lap event.

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Byron is the NASCAR Cup Series’ most recent victor at the .526-mile track, and Hamlin is the circuit’s top winner among active drivers — a five-time collector of the venue’s grandfather clock trophy. Their Martinsville successes aside, the two have been linked by a well-publicized run-in — an intentional bump by Byron that sent Hamlin spinning late last month at Texas Motor Speedway.

Sunday, they’ll each try to clinch a shot at their first Cup Series crown after qualifying outside the top 10. Hamlin was fastest in practice and is set to start 11th in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, with Byron in an uncharacteristic 25th starting position in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

“It’s a big deal, but man, just as far off and terrible as we were in the spring, plus the 24 being buried, we’ve kind of got some decent momentum,” said Hamlin. “We’re better off now than what we started the day. So we’re gaining on it.”

Byron has top-five finishes in his last three starts here, capped by a convincing victory back in April when he led 212 of the 403 laps. The 24-year-old driver shrugged when asked if his recent run give him the edge — “I don’t know. You tell me.” — but he admitted that after some rookie struggles at the tight oval, he had found a groove that clicked.

Replicating that rhythm under the scope of Sunday’s playoff pressure is still an uncertainty, Byron says.

“Yeah, there‘s a little bit of confidence going into this race since we had a good race in the spring,” said Byron, who is seeking his first berth in the Championship 4 field. “But at the same time, we had a test here, and you don‘t know who‘s going to be good or not based on that test. It‘s kind of up in the air. I feel good about this race track, but you just don‘t know until you get out there. That‘s honestly my mentality, just try to get in the car and not think too much.”

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Hamlin has been a perennial favorite in his home state, but while Byron was dashing to a springtime victory earlier this season, the No. 11 was languishing on the way to a 28th-place finish — three laps off the pace. That outcome typified the win-or-bust performance that shadowed the 41-year-old veteran through the first half of the season. Hamlin had two wins in the first 22 races but just one other top-five result in that span — an erratic stretch that kept him deep in the Cup Series standings.

Since then, the postseason has brought a pronounced turnaround for Hamlin & Co., who have landed top-10 results in seven of the eight races.

“From the beginning of the playoffs, we were going to have to defy the odds,” said Hamlin, who has reached the Championship 4 the last three seasons. “I mean, we’ve had more playoff points, we’ve been stronger, had more wins — all that stuff — you know, so I knew that this playoff was going to be tough because we were going to have to defy the odds. We know our car’s not as fast as the competition’s, so we’re just gonna have to out-execute them. That’s why I’m here to run the race because we’re not conceding anything, and I think that we’re going to show that we’ve got … there’s nothing left in the tank after tomorrow night’s race.

“So we’re going to do the best. We’re gonna keep fighting because that’s what I’m here for. You know, these opportunities are few and far between, and certainly, we’d love to make it for four years in a row.”