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Harrison Burton among three drivers in must-win situations at Martinsville


(Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

The NASCAR XFINITY Series heads to Martinsville Speedway on Saturday for the Dead on Tools 250, the penultimate race of the 2021 season. All four spots in next weekend’s championship race at Phoenix Raceway will be decided at Martinsville, but some drivers are sitting more comfortably than others.

Regular-season champion AJ Allmendinger and reigning series champion Austin Cindric are in prime position to transfer into the Championship 4. Both drivers sit 47 points above the cutline and shouldn’t have to worry as long as they finish the race.

“Martinsville is a place I really enjoy – it’s one of my favorite race tracks,” Allmendinger said. “We are in a good position heading into this weekend, but we still need to go out and execute in order to make the final four. Hopefully in doing that, we can also go win ourselves a clock.”

Allmendinger has seven top-10s in the Cup Series at Martinsville, while Cindric has top-10 finishes in both his XFINITY Series starts.

Sitting less comfortably above the cutline is Justin Allgaier (+9) and Daniel Hemric (+7). Allgaier searches for his third consecutive and his fifth overall appearance in the Championship 4, while Hemric looks to make his third berth in as many full-time seasons. Both drivers have remained incredibly consistent this season, Hemric recording 19 top-10s and Allgaier winning twice with 22 top-10s.

“We know what we need to do this weekend in Martinsville with our Hellmann’s Fridge Hunters Chevrolet,” Allgaier said. “It’s going to be a crazy race for sure with everyone fighting to try to advance to Phoenix, but if we can just be smooth, earn stage points at the end of both stages and keep our car clean, we can be there at the end to accomplish what we set out to do”.

At seven points below the cutline, Justin Haley is the only driver outside the top-four with a realistic chance to transfer. Riding nine consecutive top-10s, Haley has momentum headed to Martinsville, a track he’s finished top-10 at twice in the Camping World Truck Series and once in the XFINITY Series.

“Looking forward to going to battle,” Haley said. “We just can’t have any mistakes. Seven below [the cutline] isn’t impossible, but it’s also going to be hard. Racing Hemric, who’s going to be in the 11 car next year, and Allgaier, they’re both really fast drivers and competitive.

“A lot of the other drivers get a mindset in the playoffs where they have to win or have to go out there and do something spectactular, and you honestly don’t. You just have to survive. You have to run well, but you don’t have to do anything crazy. The objective is to win the race, but I feel I don’t need to win the race [to transfer]”.

While Haley won’t have to win to transfer, three other drivers in the playoffs likely will. Noah Gragson has an outside chance to transfer on points, but with a 24 point deficit, winning is the most likely option.

(PHOTO: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

“We need to go out and win this weekend in Martinsville to move us on to Phoenix to battle for a championship,” Gragson said. “That’s what we plan on doing. Dave (Elenz, crew chief) and this entire No. 9 Bass Pro Shops/TrueTimber/Black Rifle Coffee team is doing whatever it takes throughout the week and I know we will have a great car when we unload this weekend.”

Gragson finished second in the spring and third last fall, as well as a trio of top-fives in the truck series at Martinsville.

However, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) teammates Brandon Jones (-40) and Harrison Burton (-51) are both too far below the cutline to transfer on points. Jones, 24, is winless in his sixth full-time season in the XFINITY Series. He’ll return to JGR in 2022 but would like to do so after a Championship 4 appearance.

Unlike Jones, Burton, 21, will not return to JGR in 2022. He’ll drive the No. 21 for Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing in the Cup Series next season. Burton would like to redeem himself after falling short in the championship race last season.

“We are in a tough situation,” Burton said. “We had a really great car at Kansas, contending for the win there and just ended up getting in a crash and it put us in a bad spot, so now we know that we have to win to get into the Championship 4, which we believe we are capable of. We’ve shown we are capable of it at Martinsville in particular. We won this race last year there. It’s just time to get after it – have at it. It’s going to be fun”.

Burton’s only option is to do what he did last fall — win. Although he wasn’t in a must-win situation last year, his playoff experience and guidance from father Jeff will help him on Saturday.

“He’s been helping with making sure that my mindset is the right one and helping me along the way try to emotionally navigate this stuff,” Harrison Burton said. “There’s a lot going on. You care dearly about racing and finishing well and winning a championship and all of that. It’s what you work a whole year for and a whole off season for. It’s all you look forward towards is winning a championship. When that’s on the line in a one-race scenario, you can get caught up in that too much really easy and end up making a mistake because you are too nervous.”

The XFINITY Series race at Martinsville is scheduled for 250 laps with stage breaks at laps 60 and 120. Green flag is set for 6:17 p.m. ET with the Truck Series race set for earlier in the day at 1:04 p.m.

Nathan Solomon serves as the managing editor of The Podium Finish. He has been part of the team since 2021 and is accredited by the National Motorsports Press Association. Solomon is a senior in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. Contact him at

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