NASCAR playoffs balanced by title favorites, party crashers

NASCAR

The NASCAR Cup Series is down to its final four. After Ryan Blaney won at Martinsville on Sunday, he cemented his place in the Championship Four alongside Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron, and Marty Smith and Ryan McGee got together to hash out the fallout from Southern Virginia.

McGee: So, we have our Championship Four. Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin we knew going into Martinsville. Now we have we have Ryan Blaney and William Byron, I like it. I like this group.

Marty: I like this group a lot, too. But you misspoke. It’s actually Kyle Larson, not Denny Hamlin.

McGee: Dammit! That’s what I meant.

Marty: [Laughing] I knew what you meant, and I get why you did it.

McGee: It goes back to what we talked about the last time we did this, two weeks ago, when we both thought this was Danny Hamlin’s year and it’s not his year. But yes, we do have a veteran in the form of Kyle Larson. My bad, Kyle.

Watch Marty & McGee on SEC Network, Saturdays at 9 a.m. ET

Marty: Another near miss for Hamlin, and as they mount, it’s interesting the criticism that comes with it. I saw this morning that a former track operator wrote a very interesting social media post questioning Hamlin’s conviction, his intelligence, all kinds of different things, and whether he would ever win a championship. It’s interesting to me that there would be any question about that for people who understand the nuance of NASCAR racing, specifically that it is the consummate team sport.

McGee: I believe Teddy Roosevelt had a line about this. The man in the arena. Or, in this case, the man in the bullring half-mile oval in Southern Virginia.

Marty: This format is merciless, McGee. It is merciless. And if you have one of those moments where you have a bad pitstop at the wrong time, if you have a part failure at the wrong time, if there’s a crash in front of you at the wrong time … It can ruin your opportunity to win a championship. It’s just another year for Denny. He’s a first ballot Hall of Famer no matter what happens, but he will feel like there’s a substantial void in his career if he doesn’t end up winning one eventually.

McGee: This format makes it like any postseason in any other sport, which is what I’ve tried to tell people who — still, by the way — act like this is brand-new and it’s not. NFL, NBA, baseball, whatever; the people who have had fantastic seasons are still rewarded, because it would have been a shame if William Byron wasn’t in the Championship Four. It would have been a shame if Kyle Larson wasn’t in the Championship Four. Christopher Bell, this is his second straight year in there, and Ryan Blaney, who had to race his way in.

It’s no different than when we get to the NFC and AFC Championship games. There’s usually at least two teams that we knew all year would be there, and there’s at least one team that kind of crashed the party. And you still can’t say no one deserved it. That’s what I liked about this group.

Marty: Yeah, you go back to the New England Patriots, who were undefeated in 2007, but they got to the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, and Eli Manning and David Tyree upended their perfect season. It’s competition. The thing about auto racing that’s different than everything else is that it’s not me against you, it’s me against 39 other people in the context of the actual race. And all of those other individuals are manipulating, when it’s “I have to race in on points,” each position matters, each position counts. And so you’re just in this constant, very unique, very difficult mathematical equation.

McGee: Every car is a story.

Marty: On every lap. Every week. And now it plays out with a championship on the line. Ryan Blaney, right? I’m going to race my way and I’m going to win my way. I’m gonna go win Martinsville and stamp my way in.

McGee: And Christopher Bell raced his way in. It was remarkable talking to him after his win and the difference in this year and last year when he made it for the first time. He was emotional again after his Homestead win. He admits he was overwhelmed a bit last year but this year he knows what’s up.

Marty: And Willy B., you said it. It would have been a shame if he had missed out after winning six races.

McGee: Tops in the series and it’s not even very close.

Marty: Two guys who led the series in wins in Byron and Larson, a returning guy in Bell and kind of a party crasher in Blaney. We’ve learned that if you’re going to win the championship, you’re probably going to have to win the race, and all these guys have been good at Phoenix.

McGee: I had my reservations about moving the finale to Phoenix from Homestead, and a lot of drivers have agreed with me, but these four guys all finished in the top six there back in March. So …

Marty: What I love about the Championship Four deal is that I don’t care who is in it or where the race is, you cannot sit back and hope you have a nice race. Hope is not a plan. You have to be aggressive.

McGee: Have to.

Marty: Do your best to run up front, make the right adjustments, make the right calls, because that’s what everybody else is going to do. You have to be uber-aggressive to win this title. And that was something that I didn’t expect when it was first devised. I thought there might be a little more of a conservative approach from some of these guys, but it’s anything but. They’re usually running at the front all night.

McGee: Or wrecked out trying. Also, it must be noted that one of these guys is a hardcore Star Wars guy. Blaney is basically a Jedi.

Marty: We’ve got one Star Wars nerd. We’ve got a guy who learned how to race cars on a video game in Byron. We’ve got a sprint car guy in Bell, who is 28 but looks like he’s 16. And then we’ve got Larson, who’s probably the greatest talent behind the wheel of a racing machine on the planet.

McGee: In a showdown in the desert. Drop the green, son.

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