NASCAR's playoff push down to Martinsville madness

Denny Hamlin elevated his game this year with the aid of a microphone and a popular new podcast that unveils the insights of the driver considered the best in NASCAR history to never win a Cup Series title.

He has held nothing back in his weekly "Actions Detrimental" podcast produced by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s media company, and along the way has sounded like a guy about to make his 18th season the one that ends the hex.

A mechanical failure last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway has put Hamlin's season on the line as he heads into the last qualifying race for NASCAR's title-deciding finale. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have claimed the first of four spots in the championship race, and Hamlin finds himself tied with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. at 17 points below the cutline headed into Sunday's showdown at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.

Martinsville is Hamlin's favorite track. The Virginia-raised driver has five career wins at the paperclip-shaped short track, and even though a victory is his only guaranteed path into the finale, he said it is not a must-win race. Hamlin and regular-season champion Truex can both advance without a win but must somehow overcome their points deficit.

"I'm not," Hamlin said on his podcast of being in a must-win situation, "but I guarantee you I will be on kill right from the get-go and treat it as a must win."

Six drivers are vying for the final two slots in the finale. William Byron is a safe bet to advance based on the bonus points he's accumulated, and Ryan Blaney is Ford's best hope at getting a car into the championship.

Hamlin, Truex, fellow Toyota driver Tyler Reddick - he drives for Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI Racing - sit below the cutoff with Chris Buescher of RFK Racing.

Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports have one driver through with Larson, the 2021 Cup champion. Toyota and Gibbs are already represented in the finale by Bell, Larson's longtime dirt rival.

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