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Analysis: Truex quickly closing gap on Harvick, Hamlin

Analysis: Truex quickly closing gap on Harvick, Hamlin

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Suggesting Martin Truex Jr. is overlooked during these NASCAR Cup playoffs seems as preposterous as claiming there aren’t enough Sonic commercials during broadcasts of these races.

Truex? The driver who led the Cup series with 19 wins from 2017 to ‘19? Who won his first championship three years ago and finished second to Joey Logano and Kyle Busch the past two?

Yes, Kevin Harvick and former Chesterfield resident Denny Hamlin have grabbed a majority of the wins — 14 in 27 races — and headlines this season.

However, Truex’s Toyota has grown larger in the rearview mirrors of Harvick’s Ford and Hamlin’s Toyota over the past two months.

“You look at what we’ve done the last 10 races, I feel like we have been a top-three car every single race,” Truex said in a Zoom interview as part of the Cup playoffs media days.

Following a steady though unspectacular start to the season, he and new crew chief James Small have hit Truex’s old stride.

Starting July 23 at Kansas Speedway, the 2017 champion began a scintillating stretch of eight finishes between second and fourth. Making the feat more impressive was the variety of tracks where Truex excelled, from New Hampshire’s 1-mile flat track to Daytona’s 2.5-mile superspeedway.

He wasn’t winning, but he was a threat every week.

“I'm curious to see if we can step it up to that next level,” Truex said. “I feel like we can. I feel like we are right there on the cusp of it.”

Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, his team appeared ready to break through.

Truex led a race-high 196 laps, won both stages and was reeling in leader Chase Elliott in the final 20 laps. If not for a miscalculation on a pass attempt — his Toyota slid up the track before he was clear of Elliott’s Chevrolet — Truex might have already clinched a spot in the Round of 12 with a victory.

“It was obviously really close,” Truex said Thursday. “It was pretty much going to be the pass for the win in my eyes. I feel like in that moment we both made a split-second decision and tried to kind of anticipate or think what the other would do, and I think we both guessed wrong, to be honest with you.”

Before that move, Truex had the car to beat. That hasn’t been the case all season, but it’s becoming a weekly occurrence in the most important stretch.

Even with Sunday’s 22nd-place finish, Truex’s prospects of advancing appear strong. He’s sixth in the standings — 16 points clear of 13th-place Clint Bowyer — and he heads to Richmond Raceway for Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400.

For those who don’t remember, Truex blistered the field in both races at the three-quarter-mile track last year. He led 186 laps in April and 109 in the playoff stop. Considering the competition won’t have practice or qualifying sessions this weekend to close the gap, the field may see a lot of Truex’s rear bumper under the lights.

“It’s such a great track to race at,” Truex said. “A lot of fun. I feel very confident in our abilities to go there and be competitive, and, hopefully, pull off the three-peat.”

Truex’s dominance in the commonwealth could pay dividends in a couple of months as well. Awaiting the competitors in the season’s penultimate race is Martinsville Speedway, where the final spots in the championship race will be determined.

Truex also owns a two-race winning streak there, leading an incredible 464 of 500 laps in last year’s playoffs and another 132 circuits this June.

Though Hamlin grew up in Virginia, no one feels more at home right now on its Cup tracks than Truex.

Where Truex will have difficulty closing the gap with the favorites is playoff points. Those are awarded for stage wins (1) and race victories (5), and they carry over to each round of the playoffs. Harvick and Hamlin have piled up 62 and 47, respectively, while Truex has 16, creating a sizable gap in the overall standings.

However, race winners in each round automatically advance. Win at Richmond and Martinsville, and he needs only solid finishes in the second playoff round to punch his ticket to Phoenix Raceway.

“There’s a chance you are only racing for two spots,” Truex said of the championship race, where the best finisher of the four finalists will be crowned. “But again, you never know. I think for us, we go into the playoffs and feel like, if we win a race every round, then we are set.”

Should Truex extend his streaks in the commonwealth, Harvick and Hamlin might be pursuing Truex with the championship at stake.

And just maybe, a round of Route 44 slushes would be on Truex at Phoenix.

NASCAR Cup lineup

Federated Auto Parts 400
Saturday At Richmond Raceway
Track length: ¾ mile
(Car number in parentheses)

1. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford

2. (22) Joey Logano, Ford

3. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevy

4. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevy

5. (24) William Byron, Chevy

6. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota

7. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota

8. (1) Kurt Busch, Chevy

9. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford

10. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford

11. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford

12. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevy

13. (41) Cole Custer, Ford

14. (19) Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota

15. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford

16. (21) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford

17. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota

18. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy

19. (42) Matt Kenseth, Chevy

20. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford

21. (6) Ryan Newman, Ford

22. (8) Tyler Reddick, Chevy

23. (47) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chevy

24. (37) Ryan Preece, Chevy

25. (17) Chris Buescher, Ford

26. (95) Christopher Bell, Toyota

27. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevy

28. (96) Daniel Suarez, Toyota

29. (15) Brennan Poole, Chevy

30. (43) Bubba Wallace, Chevy

31. (38) John Hunter Nemechek, Ford

32. (27) J.J. Yeley, Chevy

33. (0) Quin Houff, Chevy

34. (32) Corey LaJoie, Ford

35. (77) Reed Sorenson, Chevy

36. (51) Joey Gase, Ford

37. (66) Timmy Hill, Toyota

38. (53) James Davison, Ford

Xfinity lineup

Go Bowling 250
Friday At Richmond Raceway

1. (10) Ross Chastain, Chevy

2. (19) Brandon Jones, Toyota

3. (20) Harrison Burton, Toyota

4. (9) Noah Gragson, Chevy

5. (98) Chase Briscoe, Ford

6. (39) Ryan Sieg, Chevy

7. (22) Austin Cindric, Ford

8. (18) Riley Herbst, Toyota

9. (1) Michael Annett, Chevy

10. (11) Justin Haley, Chevy

11. (93) Myatt Snider, Chevy

12. (92) Josh Williams, Chevy

13. (68) Brandon Brown, Chevy

14. (4) Jesse Little, Chevy

15. (36) Alex Labbe, Chevy

16. (7) Justin Allgaier, Chevy

17. (0) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevy

18. (15) Colby Howard, Chevy

19. (51) Jeremy Clements, Chevy

20. (2) Brett Moffitt, Chevy

21. (44) Tommy Joe Martins, Chevy

22. (5) Matt Mills, Chevy

23. (8) Joe Graf, Jr., Chevy

24. (21) Kaz Grala, Chevy

25. (61) Chad Finchum, Toyota

26. (74) Bayley Currey, Chevy

27. (90) Dexter Bean, Chevy

28. (8) Jeb Burton, Chevy

29. (54) Kyle Busch, Toyota

30. (78) Mason Massey, Toyota

31. (7) Joey Gase, Chevy

32. (6) B.J. McLeod, Chevy

33. (52) Kody Vanderwal, Chevy

34. (99) Vinnie Miller, Chevy

35. (13) Stephen Leicht, Toyota

36. (47) Kyle Weatherman, Chevy

37. (66) Timmy Hill, Toyota

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