ThatsRacin

Martin Truex Jr. already had a huge lead – then he won again. Who can catch him?

Martin Truex Jr. had a huge lead coming into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, but he gave himself even more of an advantage by winning the first postseason race at Chicagoland.
Martin Truex Jr. had a huge lead coming into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, but he gave himself even more of an advantage by winning the first postseason race at Chicagoland. AP

For once, Martin Truex Jr. did not dominate an entire race – and maybe that is the scariest part of his win last weekend at Chicagoland.

Instead of dominating from green to checkered as he has for most of this season, Truex did not control the entirety of Sunday’s race to open the playoffs. He was penalized for speeding in pit road during the first stage, and he didn’t win the second stage either.

But what he did do was storm from behind, make up any lost ground on the track and the leaderboard, and easily cruise to his league-leading fifth win. He finished almost eight seconds ahead of runner-up Chase Elliott. The No. 78 car, as it has been more times than any other this year, was simply too fast and too good to be beaten.

And that’s why, at least if I was one of the other 15 drivers still vying for the Cup Series championship, I’d be very worried. Because even on a day when Truex had things go wrong, even when it looked like he may be vulnerable, he took all those thoughts and laid them out on the track and ran over them again and again. Simply, he proved that he is the singular driver to beat this postseason.

The question then is: Can anyone beat him? For a race here and there, sure. That’s the nature of the sport. But in the long run, with the points he’s accumulated (and the points I feel confident he will accumulate in the next few races), can anyone outlast Truex?

KyleLarson
Kyle Larson has the best chance among other NASCAR Cup Series drivers to overtake Martin Truex Jr. in the playoffs. Nam Y. Huh AP

I won’t pretend to know the answer – no one does, nor will we until the season culminates in November at Homestead – but one can at least speculate.

There are certainly other drivers who have looked capable of winning a championship this season, and one race at Chicago did nothing to deter them. Take Kyle Larson for instance. Larson has won four races this season, including the regular season finale at Richmond where he overtook Truex for the victory. He certainly could go the distance and last until Homestead, and of all the drivers, he has the best chance to leapfrog Truex in the standings.

Or there’s Kyle Busch, who has led the second-most laps behind Truex and won two races in his own right. He finished 15th at Chicago, but he’s still fifth in the standings and has a chance to win one of the final nine.

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Though Chase Elliott finished second at Chicagoland, the finish is now considered “encumbered” by NASCAR and Elliott does not keep a playoff point he earned with a stage victory. Nam Y. Huh AP

Beyond those guys, there’s a whole host of others: Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Even Elliott, who hasn’t won yet this year, looked good at Chicago, though his title chances took a hit after being penalized for a modification to his Chevrolet.

The issue is that for as unpredictable as racing is, there are still indicators you can’t ignore. Truex has the most wins, the most laps led, the most stage wins, the most Top 10 finishes. ... Again, you don’t win the regular season points championship for nothing.

So yes, could someone catch him? Sure. But to do so, they’ll need to hope Truex has some more rough outings like his start at Chicago – that might be their only way to beat him.

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

MartinTruexburnout
Martin Truex Jr. finished almost eight seconds ahead of runner-up Chase Elliott, who won Stage 2, at Chicagoland. Nam Y. Huh AP

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