But for Ryan Blaney, there’s one even closer to his heart.
It’s Martinsville, just an hour from his hometown, the half-mile track where on Sunday he took the checkered flag in the last race of the Round of 8 to earn his first Championship 4 berth. He’ll run for the 2023 title in the season finale at Phoenix, along with Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron.
“I grew up in High Point, not too far from here,” said Blaney, whose No. 12 Ford Mustang led 145 of the 500 laps in door-to-door racing with Aric Almirola, Denny Hamlin and others. “High Point is closer to Martinsville than it is to Charlotte, so it’s really cool. I’ve been wanting to win here for a long time.”
It was the third win of the season for the Team Penske racer, matching his career best from two years earlier, and the 10th of his career.
In taking the Martinsville checkers, Blaney eliminated Hamlin, who led a race-high 156 laps and finished third but couldn’t point his way into the final four. Also shut out of a chance at Phoenix were Chris Buescher (eighth), Martin Truex Jr. (12th, 47 laps led) and Tyler Reddick (26th).
“The mechanical failure last week with the power steering, that really sealed our fate,” said Hamlin, who won his 49th, 50th and 51st career races in the regular season to sit 13th on the all-time list. “Really proud of this whole FedEx Toyota team for showing up today when we really needed to.”
Buescher climbed out of his No. 17 Ford Mustang in good spirits. “Extremely proud of our year, all things considered,” said the Texan, who won a career-high three times in 2023.
Truex Jr. said: “We gave it a hell of an effort. I don’t think we could have beat the 12. He was really, really strong. We were definitely close.”
From Reddick: “Certainly excited about the future for this team. We’re still in Year 3. Still trying to figure it out, and for us to be this close … really cool to see us put a stretch together in the playoffs to get here.”
Almirola, who announced before the race that he wouldn’t return to the No. 10 Ford Mustang in 2024, ran second, and Chase Briscoe was fourth. Panini America NASCAR Brand Ambassador Joey Logano took fifth for his 160th career top-five, just one shy of tying Kurt Busch for 25th most all-time.
The remainder of the top 10 were Larson, Bell, Buescher, Austin Cindric and Todd Gilliland.
Now it’s time for NASCAR to crown a champion. Graciously, Hamlin wished the contenders well.
“Congrats to all the final four,” he said. “It’s going to be great.”