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
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