MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Denny Hamlin’s dazzling season could potentially collapse if things go sideways Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR’s oldest and shortest track that has been slotted as the final playoff elimination race.

NASCAR’s needed horsepower for its stale playoffs so Martinsville was shuffled to the back of a revamped schedule. The same guys raced the same 10 tracks in the same 10-week order every year, and the schedule had to change.

So Martinsville was moved to the final elimination race and NASCAR created a high-stakes last-chance Sunday at the historic Virginia paperclip. Three of four slots are unclaimed in next week’s title-deciding race at Phoenix, which will host its first championship, with Joey Logano the only driver already qualified.

It means at least one of NASCAR’s top stars and maybe even a legitimate title contender won’t advance out of Martinsville. Kevin Harvick is probably cushioned by bonus points earned through nine victories this year. That’s two slots for six drivers, and all six believe they can win to get in.

Hamlin, winner of seven races and the Daytona 500 this year, sparred with Harvick all season as co-favorites to win the Cup title. Hamlin hasn’t been great in the playoffs and he holds just a two-point lead over Brad Keselowski above the cutline.

A bad day could end Hamlin’s quest for an elusive first Cup title, while teammate Martin Truex Jr. must win Martinsville to advance after an illegal spoiler last week put derailed him in the standings.

Truex is trying to make the final four for a fourth consecutive year. If Truex wins, it could eliminate Hamlin – if Hamlin finishes behind Keselowski.

“It’s up to us to get it done,” said Hamlin, a five-time Martinsville winner. “My goal and my anticipation is that we’re going to win.”

Truex, winner of the last two races at Martinsville, hasn’t dismissed a three-peat but is realistic about the challenge.

“A must‑win at any track, no matter how good you’ve been there in the past, I think is a challenge,” Truex said.

FORMULA ONE: Formula One is back at Imola for the first time since 2006 and drivers have been raving over the “old-school” layout of the Enzo and Dino Ferrari circuit.

After all, the track situated in Italy’s auto racing heartland will forever hold a place in F1 history as the site of Ayrton Senna’s death from a high-speed crash in 1994. Not to mention happier memories such as victories by the likes of Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso.

The narrow track and quick chicanes, however, don’t appear to be suited for modern-day F1 racing – especially compared to the far-flung newer circuits with exceedingly long straights and intricate series of mind-boggling turns.

Just ask Lewis Hamilton, who only last weekend eclipsed Schumacher by winning a record 92nd F1 race in Portugal.

“I’m pretty certain you’ll see a boring race tomorrow,” Hamilton said after qualifying second Saturday at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix behind Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas. “After Turn 1 it is going to be a train as there is nowhere else to pass. I would be really surprised if it’s a great race to watch. I hope I’m wrong.”

XFINITY: Harrison Burton played the spoiler for a second consecutive week by winning at Martinsville Speedway to disrupt the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs.

Burton became the youngest winner in Martinsville history at 20 years, 22 days, breaking the mark set by his father, Jeff, in 1990 when he was 23. It was Burton’s fourth win of the season and, just like last week, spoiled the championship picture.

Burton’s back-to-back wins prevented Noah Gragson and Ross Chastain from advancing to next week’s Xfinity Series championship race at Phoenix. The title will instead be decided between Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Justin Haley.

The Xfinity Series is crowning its first new champion in three years; Tyler Reddick was promoted to Cup after winning the last two crowns.

Gragson as week ago at Texas was cruising to the checkered flag and an automatic berth in the finale when Burton hurtled past him and snatched the win. It put Gragson in a must-win situation Saturday at Martinsville, where the Xfinity Series raced for the first time since 2006.

But Burton was fairly dominant in his Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and wasn’t challenged at the end. Allgaier finished second with enough points to advance into the championship race, while Gragson finished third and below the cutline.

Chastain, who also likely needed to win to advance, finished fifth.

 

 

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