After another wacky, unpredictable three races, the NASCAR Playoff field is down to eight, with another three showdowns remaining to determine the four who will contend for the Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5. To sort out what has happened and what could still happen, it’s time to run a flying lap with Marty & McGee, who talk about growing old, dwindling title shots, NASCAR’s youth movement and fancy kicks.
Ryan McGee: Okay, Marty, it’s time for the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs, the Round of 8. Is there anything that surprises you when you look at the eight that we have?
Marty Smith: No. I’m super impressed with a couple of the teams but I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily surprised. Tyler Reddick, I think has been just really, really fast and really impressive for 23XI Racing. And with his ability to manipulate and perform on these racetracks coming up, I feel like he has a real opportunity.
McGee: It’s an interesting mix. Back-to-back intermediate tracks at Vegas and Miami-Homestead — which, to me, is still weird that isn’t the finale — and then the bullring of Martinsville.
Marty: I still feel like it’s Denny Hamlin‘s year. I just do. You’re able to get through Talladega, you’re able to get through the Roval and now you’re still in a really good position. So, I’ve just felt for a while, McGee, that this might be a year of destiny for Denny and there’s nothing, even bad luck at Charlotte, which has changed my opinion of that.
McGee: I look at Martinsville in three weekends and I think a lot of people hold their breath when they see that as the next cutoff race, the one that will determine the Championship Four. But I love it.
And I know I’m speaking to a fellow Virginian here in you, but Denny Hamlin is a Richmond native, and the first time I saw him drive a race car was at Martinsville and he was driving an Allison Legacy car and he might have been 13 years old. So, it reminds me of when they first started doing the Chase postseason format and the fall schedule was shuffled and I immediately thought, “Oh man, this schedule right here, with the tracks where they are, Jimmie Johnson is going to crush everybody.” And he did. When I see Martinsville sitting there for Denny, if there’s a place that he could drive with a level of comfort where maybe others don’t have it, to me it’s there.
Marty: He’s just kind of the short track king in the sport right now. And if he can get to Phoenix, Denny is also in a unique headspace right now. I think that his emotional approach to this used to be, “All right, I’m going to say what I think, but I might not really like how people respond to it.” Now there has been an emotional shift for him, where it’s, “I’m going to say exactly what I think. Y’all be damned.” I think that he sees that he has a championship-caliber team, a team that’s capable everywhere, and you just don’t know how often that’s going to happen.
McGee: Especially at 42 years old with so many trophies but zero championships.
Marty: Exactly. I think we both agree he’s a first ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer no matter what, whether he wins a championship or not. If you win as many races as he has, as many Daytona 500s as he has, been competitive for almost 20 years, but I know that he’ll feel incomplete if he doesn’t get a ring. And I believe in my heart this is his best chance yet. You see that emotional difference I’m talking about?
McGee: Absolutely. I always go back to the first time that he was in the last group at Homestead. It was 2006, his second season, and he was scared to death. I might have been sitting with you at the pre-championship news conference and the way it was set up, he was sitting at the front table in between Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth …
Marty: And Jimmie Johnson.
McGee: Yep. The veterans. And I remember we could see Denny was like a literal duck on the pond. From the table up, he looked fine, but there was a gap in the apron around the table and we could see his feet bouncing up and down. And then he had a total vapor lock in the middle of that race and basically spun himself out of contention.
Marty: Now he’s the veteran in that final eight.
McGee: Kyle Larson has a championship. Martin Truex Jr. has one. I think we both agree that William Byron, Christopher Bell, Reddick, Ryan Blaney, they all have more title bouts ahead in their careers. So, there’s some desperation for Denny, but I don’t think he’ll race desperate. Does that make sense?
Marty: Oh, yeah. I think he’s smarter than that. He’ll only race desperate if he gets to Martinsville and has to. And I think that he has that in him at this point.
You mentioned Truex, he’s made speed. He was so fast at the beginning of the year, and now he’s just creeping, and these next two tracks are his peanut butter and jelly, man. When the Playoffs started, I said I felt like the 11 and the 19 we’re going to battle for this title. I openly admit that I didn’t give enough credit to Byron and Larson.
McGee: All they do is win, especially Byron.
Marty: Just fast as hell everywhere. Rick Hendrick saw that talent when a lot of us sort of wondered about that, and he has absolutely validated Rick’s decision to put him in the 24.
McGee: This eight is full of those guys. That second four, there’s Chris Buescher, Bell, Reddick, Blaney. We’ve both been doing this a while and we’ve both been hearing about those guys forever …
Marty: Like, some of them since they were in middle school …
McGee: And now here they sit with the chance to contend for a championship. Does that mean we’re old?
Marty: Yes, it means we’re old. As Methuselah. But it’s so awesome to see them come of age. I mean, Buescher, if in February you would have given me an over/under that he would win multiple times this season, I wouldn’t have taken the bet.
McGee: Especially not at the reclamation project that is RFK Racing, right?
Marty: And all he did was go out and win three races.
McGee: And bossman Brad Keselowski nearly made this eight, too.
Marty: Bell is very quiet, but always fast. And again, I’ve been so impressed with Reddick. That young man is as talented a shoe as there is in the sport. You go all the way back to when he was driving Trucks for Kyle Busch and Kyle was like, “Y’all just trust me here. This dude is an absolute shoe.”
McGee: Speaking of him being a shoe, hey Mr. Sneakerhead, have you seen the Jordan paint scheme Reddick is running this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway? I have been dying to ask you about it, seeing as how you have an entire wing of your house built just to store all your J’s.
— 23XI Racing (@23XIRacing) October 10, 2023
Marty: Yes, I have and I need that diecast for my office.
McGee: As soon as I saw it pop up on social media this week I said, “Marty might try to put shoelaces on a couple of the diecasts and wear them on ‘Marty & McGee’ as roller skates.”
Marty: I’m jealous of Tyler in a lot of ways. I have a very good relationship with that brand, but mine’s not quite as good as Tyler’s.
McGee: Back in the day, I remember you would wear Jordans and people would ask me, “Why is Marty wearing Jordans at the racetrack?” And now Michael Jordan is at the racetrack.
Marty: I was ahead of my time.
McGee: And now we are out time. Until next time.
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