Ryan Blaney was in tears back in May when the crowd chanted "Blaney! Blaney! Blaney" after he snapped a 59-race losing streak with his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
He was so thrilled in that moment to get back to victory lane and rebuild his confidence after a winless 2022 season. Little did Blaney know at the time that his Coca-Cola 600 win jump-started his march into NASCAR's championship race.
Blaney will race for his first Cup title after qualifying for the championship-deciding finale with a Sunday win at Martinsville Speedway. His third win of the season -- equaling his career best -- put him in the final four next week at Phoenix Raceway, where he will race Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron for the Cup championship.
"All you want is a shot at a championship. You get your shot when the playoffs start, if you make 'em, OK, you have a shot. But then your real shot is if you get to Phoenix, right?" Blaney said. "It's just nice to have an opportunity to actually race for a championship.
"I don't think you can ever count anybody else out, any team out. It's about peaking at the right time. Our group is doing that."
Byron, who led the Cup Series with six wins this season, earned the fourth and final slot in the championship by limping to a 13th-place finish. Byron had padded his position with bonus points earned all season and edged Denny Hamlin, who finished third at Martinsville on Sunday, by eight points to qualify for NASCAR's championship.
Blaney and Byron will race Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where the Cup championship will go to the highest-finishing driver.
Larson and Byron gave Hendrick Motorsports a pair of Chevrolets in the final four, Bell is in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and Blaney drives a Ford for Team Penske. Blaney can give Roger Penske back-to-back titles following Joey Logano's win last year.
Larson is the only driver in the field with a Cup title and returns to the final four for the second time in three years. Bell is back in the championship for the second consecutive year; Blaney and Byron are racing for the Cup title for the first time.
Byron said his helmet fan stopped working during the race and he dropped to the ground outside his car following the race.
"It's our worst race of the year," Byron said. "With 50 (laps) to go, I felt really, really bad and I just had to drive the hell out of it. The guys stuck with me and just kept motivating me through, little bits and pieces, and just keeping my mind straight."
Hamlin was pretty much in a must-win situation Sunday after a mechanical failure last week caused him to crash and dropped him below the cutoff line for elimination at Martinsville. He wasted no time going after the win and led a race-high 156 laps.
"I'm not counting points. I'm doing everything I can to win. Everything," Hamlin radioed before the final stage.
But Hamlin lost ground after the final round of pit stops -- when he and Blaney each took four tires -- and he never could work his way back through the traffic to challenge for the win. Hamlin was also eliminated from championship contention at Martinsville last year on a last-lap Hail Mary move by Ross Chastain.
"The mechanical failure last week with the power steering, that sealed our fate," Hamlin said. "The 12 car (Blaney) was the best car today, so congrats to them. All the final four that made it, it's going to be great. Hate we're not in it. It's racing, right? This is the playoffs. You got a three-race season. The 12 car showed up this round, right? He deserves to be in that final four."
Blaney won for the third time this season, tying his career high, and led 145 laps. He won twice in the playoffs but his win at the Virginia track was the first for Blaney, who hails from High Point, North Carolina, and considers the short track located 55 miles away his home track.
"I've always wanted to win here. I grew up in High Point, just south of here. I grew up closer to here than I did Charlotte," Blaney said. "I came here a lot as a kid. I loved watching Dad race here. I wanted a grandfather clock for a long time, ever since I was a kid. There's those little special things that you remember."
Martin Truex Jr., the regular season champion and pole-sitter Sunday, was eliminated from title contention along with Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing, Chris Buescher of RFK Racing and Hamlin.
Truex finished 12th to cap what has been a terrible playoffs for the Gibbs driver. He was flagged for speeding earlier in the race.
"It's just a dogfight. I don't know. We gave it a hell of an effort," Truex said. "Really disappointed. It's devastating. That's racing. We've had some bad luck. We've had a little bit of everything. Like I said, some years it feels like it's your year, some years it feels like it's not. I just feel we couldn't do anything right."
Up next is the season-ending championship race at Phoenix Raceway, where Larson, Bell, Blaney and Byron will race for the Cup title. The highest finishing driver among the final four claims the championship. Joey Logano won his second title a year ago by winning Phoenix, but has already been eliminated from the playoffs. Byron won at Phoenix in the spring.