Martin Truex Jr. continues to be at his best on NASCAR’s biggest stages this season. Now he hopes he can finish it with something even more grand.
Truex finished strong Sunday at Darlington Speedway, holding off Kevin Harvick to win the Southern 500, one of the sport’s signature races. He started the summer by running away with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another of NASCAR’s so-called “crown jewels.” He began the season by finishing second by inches in the biggest one of all, the Daytona 500.
“It’s been a good season, and it’s got the potential to be a really great season,” said Truex, who outlasted a frustrated Kevin Harvick at Darlington.
What would make it great for Truex would be a Cup championship, something he came close to winning last season when he advanced all the way to the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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“I really feel like we’ve got a legitimate shot at this championship,” said Truex. “We had a shot at it last year, but didn’t have the performance at the end of the year in our cars. This year, we’ve got that speed, so if we can get to Homestead, we should really have a shot at this thing.
“But until Homestead is done and gone, we won’t know.”
Those guys get paid a lot of money to perform on pit road, and cheerleading hasn’t really been working.
Truex came close – by just about a foot behind Denny Hamlin at Daytona – to becoming just the third driver in NASCAR history to win Daytona, Charlotte and Darlington in the same season. Leroy Yarbrough (1969) and David Pearson (1976) are the only drivers to accomplish that feat.
“Just to be mentioned with those two names is unbelievable enough,” said Truex. “I can’t believe that about a foot from doing it is incredible. There’s so many things about this year that have been special, and that’s one of them. To lead the most miles of any NASCAR race (at Charlotte) ever, I mean, you just think about the names, the names that have been come and gone and paved the way for us drivers. That none of those guys have done it before is unbelievable. I’m just humbled.”
Truex is one of eight drivers who has won multiple times this season and he clinched a spot in the Chase several weeks ago. But the competition for the final three spots in the 16-driver postseason got tighter after Sunday’s race. All three of those winless drivers – rookie Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray – can’t afford to have another driver win for a first time at Richmond this week, the final race of the postseason.
Martin Truex Jr. made the Chase last season and advanced to the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But if there’s a repeat winner at Richmond, it seems that Elliott (10th place) and Dillon (12th) would be safe. Tony Stewart (27th) has clinched his spot and 30th-place Chris Buescher would be in because they both have won.
It’s a little more dicey for McMurray, who is 13th and owns the final spot for now. He finished 15th Sunday, but saw his lead over Ryan Newman shrink from 15 to seven points. Newman’s No. 31 Chevy failed postrace laser inspection, however. If he is docked points because of that (which will be announced Wednesday), it could hurt his chances badly.
Buescher won at Pocono and moved into 30th place two weeks later at Bristol. He finished 17th Sunday and upped his lead to 11 points over David Ragan. Buescher can’t afford to drop out of the top 30 at Richmond or he won’t make the Chase.
“From that side of things, it was a good points night,” said Buescher. “I feel like we have a good cushion right now.”
8 Drivers who have won multiple races this season.
Then there was Harvick, who had the fastest car for most of the night, but was left with a frustrating second-place finish.
Three slow pit stops were costly to Harvick – he lost a total of 17 positions on pit road, including 11 during one stop.
On one, an air gun malfunctioned and chief Rodney Childers ordered a crew member to go to Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick’s pit to get another. That stop took 17 seconds and cost Harvick seven spots.
It’s been an ongoing source of frustration for Harvick this season. In fact, it’s really been the only weakness for the team, which long ago clinched a spot in the Chase with victories at Phoenix and Bristol and has been near or at the top of the points standings all season.
“We have championship cars and we’re just mediocre on pit road,” said Harvick. “It’s kind of been that way for a few years, and they’ve moved some things around, but it just seems like it’s just week after week after week. You have a couple good weeks here and there and every once in a while you just put together a day, but they just can’t put together a whole day on pit road right now.”
Harvick was asked how he balances the positive and with tough criticism for his team.
“I’m over being a cheerleader,” said Harvick. “Those guys get paid a lot of money to perform on pit road, and cheerleading hasn’t really been working. You’ve got to get after it on pit road and do your job.”
Cole Pearn, Truex’s crew chief, can relate. His team has had its share of problems on pit road this season, too.
“They’re my only sanity check,” said Pearn. “It happens to them, too. It’s a team sport. But sometimes one side of the team is doing great and the other side is struggling.”
Making the Chase
Thirteen drivers have clinched a spot in NASCAR’s chase. A handful of others are chasing the final three spots:
Kevin Harvick (2)
Brad Keselowski (4)
Joey Logano (1)
Carl Edwards (2)
Denny Hamlin (2)
Kurt Busch (1)
Kyle Busch (4)
Martin Truex Jr. (2)
Matt Kenseth (2)
Jimmie Johnson (2)
Kyle Larson (1)
Tony Stewart (1)
Chris Buescher (1)*
*Currently 30th in points, Buescher has to finish in the top 30 to qualify for the Chase.