Ryan Blaney wins at Martinsville, earns shot at Cup Series title alongside Christopher Bell, William Byron, Kyle Larson

AP photo by Chuck Burton / Team Penske's Ryan Blaney, right, and Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin battle as they lead the field out of the second turn during Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series playoff elimination race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.
AP photo by Chuck Burton / Team Penske's Ryan Blaney, right, and Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin battle as they lead the field out of the second turn during Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series playoff elimination race at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway.

Ryan Blaney was in tears back in May when the crowd chanted "Blaney! Blaney! Blaney" after he snapped a 59-race losing streak with his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He was so thrilled in that moment just to get back to victory lane in the Team Penske No. 12 Ford and rebuild his confidence after a winless 2022 season. Little did Blaney know at the time that his Coca-Cola 600 victory was just the start of something even bigger: the battle for a NASCAR championship.

Blaney will race for his first Cup Series crown after qualifying for a title-eligible spot in the season finale with a win Sunday at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway. His third win of the season, which equaled a career best for the 29-yard old, put him in the final four next weekend at Phoenix Raceway, where he will be competing against Hendrick Motorsports teammates and Chevrolet drivers William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota driver Christopher Bell for NASCAR's biggest prize.

"All you want is a shot at a championship. You get your shot when the playoffs start, if you make them, OK, 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 leads the Cup Series with six wins this season, earned the fourth and final title-eligible spot for the finale by limping to a 13th-place finish on the Virginia short track. Byron had padded his position with bonus points earned all season and edged JGR's Denny Hamlin — who finished third at Martinsville on Sunday — by eight points to advance as the eight-driver playoff field was cut in half.

After starting with 16 drivers and going through nine races, the Cup Series playoffs have come down to this: the highest finisher among Bell, Blaney, Byron and Larson at Phoenix will be the champ.

Joey Logano, last year's Cup Series champ, was eliminated earlier in the playoffs, but team owner Roger Penske has a chance at at another trophy thanks to Blaney.

Hendrick's Larson is the only driver in the four-man field with a Cup Series title and is eligible for the championship in the final race for the second time in three years. Bell is back in the final four for the second consecutive year, while Byron — like Blaney — is racing for the title in the finale for the first time.

Byron said his helmet fan stopped working during Sunday's race, and he dropped to the ground outside his car afterward.

"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."

  photo  AP photo by Chuck Burton / Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney celebrates in victory lane at Martinsville Speedway after winning a NASCAR Cup Series playoff race Sunday at the Virginia short track.

Hamlin was pretty much in a must-win situation Sunday after a mechanical failure last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway 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.

Hamlin, widely considered the best driver without a Cup Series title, lost ground after the final round of pit stops — 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, with a last-lap Hail Mary move by Ross Chastain doing the damage in 2022.

"The mechanical failure last week with the power steering, that sealed our fate," Hamlin said. "The 12 car (Blaney) was the best car today, so congrats to them. All the final four that made it, it's going to be great. Hate we're not in it. It's racing, right? This is the playoffs. You've got a three-race season. The 12 car showed up this round, right? He deserves to be in that final four."

Blaney, whose second win of the season was a playoff triumph at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway in early October, led 145 laps at Martinsville. He hails from High Point, North Carolina, and considers the short track located 55 miles away his home track.

"I've always wanted to win here. .. I grew up closer to here than I did Charlotte," Blaney said. "I came here a lot as a kid. I loved watching Dad race here. I wanted a grandfather clock for a long time, ever since I was a kid. There's those little special things that you remember."

JGR's Martin Truex Jr., the regular-season champion and pole-sitter Sunday, was eliminated from title contention along with Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing, Chris Buescher of RFK Racing and Hamlin.

Truex finished 12th at Martinsville to cap what was a terrible postseason for the 2017 Cup Series champion. He was flagged for speeding earlier in the race.

"It's just a dogfight. I don't know. We gave it a hell of an effort," Truex said. "Really disappointed. It's devastating. That's racing. 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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