A few true statements to begin.
Martin Truex Jr. has been the best driver in NASCAR this season. He has won more races than anyone else, and in fact, he’s won more races this season than anyone since 2013 – and there are still four races to go. He could very easily add another victory or two in that time. He has a substantial lead in playoff points, more than the second- and third-place drivers combined. And all of that is a long-winded way of saying that Truex is, by far, the favorite of the remaining playoff drivers to make it to the championship race at Homestead in November.
But even before last weekend’s victories at Kansas, which happened just hours after the death of one of his crew members, we already knew that Truex was the man to beat. Nothing changed in the Midwest. If anything, he only tightened the vice grip he has atop the Vegas betting line.
We did, however, learn something about Truex in Kansas, or rather, we learned something about beating him. Not what it will take – a fast car, obviously, and some bad luck for the No. 78 team – but who could actually do it.
And that list is shrinking race by race.
The biggest name that dropped off the list at Kansas as far as potential Truex challengers are concerned was Kyle Larson. Now, Larson had a heck of a season. A great season, by most accounts, especially for someone who’s only 25 and making his second playoff appearance.
But when Larson’s engine blew early at Kansas, dropping him not just from the race but from the playoffs altogether, it meant Truex’s greatest threat was gone. Larson had three victories on the season, multiple top-five finishes, and had he made it to Homestead, his past excellence there may have even made him the favorite over Truex.
Of course none of that matters now that he’s out. So who’s left that could reasonably challenge Truex for a title? Or can anyone?
Most people would be quick to point to Kyle Busch, who was on the brink of elimination in the second round but vaulted himself back into second in the standings with a quality run in Kansas. He, like Truex, has won multiple playoff races so far, and his championship pedigree (he won the title in 2015) means he could be a threat. He’ll need to be more consistent than he was in the second round, but there’s a strong possibility he ends up as one of the final four.
Then there is the next tier, from Brad Keselowski to Kevin Harvick and even Jimmie Johnson, who scraped into the third round of the playoffs only by virtue of Larson’s early exit. They’ve all been solid this season, but ultimately have lacked the breakaway speed of Truex. Of the three, it seems Harvick is most likely to advance, although it’s hard to root against Johnson’s championship experience.
The point is, who might beat Truex became a lot more of a guessing game with Larson out. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible – it just means that, over the next three races, we still have a lot left to learn.