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Pressure builds for NASCAR Cup playoffs drivers at Martinsville

Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte, and Nate Ryan address the pressure that Denny Hamlin is experiencing ahead of the Round of 8 cutoff race at Martinsville, as he enters five points below the playoff cutline.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Today is what any athlete wants to experience, a pressure situation to earn a chance to compete for a championship.

“If you ask anyone that has golfed with me or plays basketball with me, I love those pressure putts, those pressure free throws to ice a game,” said Denny Hamlin, heading into his final chance to make next week’s Cup title race. “I like that because I feel like you’re showing everyone that the nerves don’t get to me. … I like those big situations, I really do.

“It doesn’t mean that I’ve always performed my best in them, but I certainly like them because it’s what makes it so exciting. When you go back and watch these races and it comes down to the final lap and who is going to get in, who is going to be out, that’s what it is all about.”

Seven drivers, including Hamlin, will vie for the final three championship spots today at Martinsville Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Cup race

Hamlin is the first driver outside a transfer spot, sitting five points behind William Byron. Stage points will be critical. That makes track position so important. Byron struggled in qualifying and will start 25th. Hamlin will start 11th. That puts Hamlin in position to gain points on Byron.

In the spring Martinsville race, the top six finishers in the first stage all started seventh or better.

In the four previous short track races this season — both Richmond races, the spring Martinsville race and the Bristol night race — at least five of the top six finishers in the first stage of the race started in the top 10.

“Big thing is stage points,” Hamlin said. “I’m going to try to get as many as I can, be as aggressive as I can the first couple of stages to try to get some (points).”

But the uncertainty of today is if someone outside a playoff spot wins and takes a spot in the championship race. Two of the last three years, a driver 20 or more points above the cutline failed to advance.

Ross Chastain is 19 points above the cutline, Chase Elliott is 11 above it and Byron is five above it.

So, nobody is really safe today.

Those below the cutline are: Hamlin (-5 points), Ryan Blaney (-18), Christopher Bell (-33) and Chase Briscoe (-44).

It could wild if Briscoe, who is in a must-win situation, is at the front late in the race.

“He is definitely the most aggressive, one of the most aggressive drivers in the field,” pole-sitter Kyle Larson said of Briscoe. “Then you throw in the fact that he has to win to advance, he’s going to be crazy. I’m sure if he’s anywhere near the front at the end, it’s going to get wild.”

Briscoe couldn’t say Saturday how aggressive he would be.

“I think it’s hard to say what you’re willing to do sitting here versus when you’re in the moment,” Briscoe told reporters. “The emotions and adrenaline, everything is totally different than when you’re sitting here. … I don’t know what you’re willing to do. I think it’s different for everybody and until you’re in that moment it’s hard to say. We’ve just got to go try to get a win.”

The challenge will be passing. The spring race showed how difficult it is to pass with the Next Gen car at this track. Bell, who likely needs a win to advance, said this aero package “makes the cars extremely hard to get close to another. … The problem is that at Martinsville, you can’t really get away from someone. There’s one line that is dominant so you have to pretty much follow the car in front of you, which makes it hard to create a run.

“We go to some of the best tracks we’ve seen like Las Vegas and Kansas, you can simply run a different line and create momentum, find clean air to make runs and generate passes.”

But as was shown in Saturday’s Xfinity race, once cars get close enough at the end, there likely will be contact.

Justin Allgaier and AJ Allmendinger bounced off each other for a few laps in Saturday’s Xfinity race as they raced for the final championship spot before Allmendinger had a tire go down. After some beating and banging, Ty Gibbs wrecked teammate Brandon Jones for the win on th last lap.

“I don’t even want to know what (Sunday) is going to look like with the Cup race,” Allgaier said with a smile. “It’s definitely going to be a wild one. I think you’re going to see a lot of craziness.”