Scott Fowler

NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton: Martin Truex Jr. is the one to beat, but Kevin Harvick lurking

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Martin Truex Jr. dominated the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, leading 588 of 600 miles.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Martin Truex Jr. dominated the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, leading 588 of 600 miles. TNS

NBC analyst Jeff Burton will help call Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 on TV. And the way he figures it, both that race – and the Chase for the Championship itself – are right there for Martin Truex Jr. to win.

“The No. 78 car has to be considered the favorite in both right now,” said Burton, a former driver who had 21 victories himself at NASCAR’s highest level. “Truex has just been so dominant. But he won’t do exactly what he did at Charlotte in May – because nobody can do that twice in a row.”

What Truex did in May at the Coca-Cola 600 was the sort of unadulterated dominance every racer dreams about. First, he won the pole. Then he led 588 of a possible 600 miles – the most miles any driver has ever led at any NASCAR race ever.

“I kind of felt like he was playing with us,” Jimmie Johnson, who finished third in that race, said immediately after it was over.

Already this weekend won’t turn out to be quite that good for Truex, who has already won two of the first three races in the 2016 Chase. He didn’t win the pole in Charlotte this time out. The pole instead went to Kevin Harvick Thursday night – and it is Harvick whom Burton considers the strong second choice both in Charlotte and in the Chase itself.

“Harvick is driving really well and has found a lot of speed,” said Burton, who spoke with me in a phone interview Friday.

Burton also predicted that Chase Elliott, who will start third in Saturday night’s 500, may have a breakthrough victory either in this race or in one of the final races of 2016.

As for fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., he won’t be in the 500. Earnhardt is sitting out the rest of 2016 because of the lingering effects of a concussion he suffered in June. While Earnhardt has repeatedly insisted that he will return to racing in 2017, Burton isn’t quite as sure.

“I know Dale wants to come back,” Burton said, “and I believe he will as long as his health allows him to. But his health has to be the only issue that really matters here. I’m sure if he retired he would miss having never won a championship, but he’s already had a great career. I expect to see him back at Daytona (for the 2017 Daytona 500), but only if the doctors clear him. And if we do see him back, I’m sure he will drive as hard as he ever has.”

I also asked Burton what he thought was the biggest surprise of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season so far.

“I think the racing has been a lot better than it was last season,” Burton said. “Better finishes, more passing. Not every race has been great – and you won’t ever have that – but a higher percentage have been fun to watch. But I’ve also been surprised that the stands aren’t a little fuller for these races. Some of those fans that the sport lost several years ago have been slow to come back, even though the on-track product has improved. So that has been a surprise to me. We’re not going to just be given those fans’ loyalty again, which is fine. We’re going to have to earn it.”