Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – There was certainly no shortage of drama – both on and off the track – in the opening race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs last weekend and that high energy will undoubtedly carry over to the second race of the 10-race Playoff this Saturday night in the Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Richmond Raceway.
Martin Truex Jr. won his fifth race of the 2019 season (series-most) last Sunday in Las Vegas and now heads to Richmond as the most recent winner on 0.75-mile short track – leading a race best 186 of the 400 laps and holding off reigning series champion Joey Logano for the victory back in April.
In an ironic twist, much of the “buzz” after Vegas was about Playoff drivers who didn’t fare as expected.
But it’s a big shiny trophy that Truex and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team seek, not necessarily attention. The headlines will continue to come as Truex continues to win races. And a second Cup championship would make him one of only two multi-time champions currently competing – joining the ranks of seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
Even the laidback 39-year old, Truex, and his longtime crew chief Cole Pearn acknowledged the win – more than four-seconds over Kevin Harvick – at Vegas was a strong statement going forward. Truex started 24th at Vegas and still won – the farthest back on the grid he’s won from; outside of a 26th-place start at Dover International Speedway in his career first Cup victory in 2007.
“I think it’s huge,” Truex said Sunday night. “I think it’s huge for a lot of reasons. First off, we’ve had a stretch of six or seven races, maybe six, that we’ve been really strong in. We feel like we’ve had cars capable of winning and we honestly don’t have a whole lot to show for it. We had no bonus points in that stretch. It was getting frustrating.
“But we knew we were really fast, we knew we were working on the right things. I knew the team was doing a great job. It’s kind of like for us inside of our minds, it’s kind of an indication that, hey, we were doing the right things. When we can get things to roll our way, not make any mistakes, this is what we can do.”
“Great time with the Playoffs starting to be able to do it,” Truex continued. “I think a lot of people have been like, ‘Where has the 19 been? We don’t expect them to be that strong.’ We know what we can do. When we live up to our potential, it makes us happy.”
Certainly then, the pair must be happy. The team has gotten in front of the Playoff intensity and already earned its ticket to the next round.
Normally the team’s five wins would be a sort of natural “separation” from the field, but Truex has two teammates with four wins each – Denny Hamlin and regular season champion Kyle Busch. Add in their 23-year old teammate Erik Jones’ win at Darlington and JGR has a series best 14 wins through the opening 27 races – the most by a team in the Modern Era (1972-Present).
It will be up to the other three team drivers to rally from unexpected outcomes at Vegas and continue what many expected to be a relative easy advancement to at least the Round of 12 in the Playoffs. The Top-12 drivers among the 16 Playoff eligible racers following the third race of the opening round at Charlotte’s “ROVAL” next week will continue their championship fight.
Busch had a much-publicized frustrating 19th-place finish at Las Vegas and has dropped to fourth in the standings, 19-points behind Truex, who takes the championship lead for the first time this season. Hamlin finished 15th at Vegas and is now ranked seventh in the standings, 26 points behind Truex.
Richmond is poised to be an uptick for the JGR Toyota team, however. Not only is Truex the most recent winner there, but Hamlin and Busch are multi-time winners at 0.75-mile track.
Hamlin, who grew up in Virginia, has three series wins and three NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at the Richmond three-quarter mile track. Busch has five Cup wins and six Xfinity wins. Between 2009 and Spring, 2011, Busch and Hamlin won every Cup race at the track. The two have accounted for three victories – Hamlin (2016-2) and Busch (2018 season sweep) in the last six races there. Add their newest teammate Truex into the mix with his win this April and the Joe Gibbs Racing team has to be considered the favorite when the series rolls in later this week.
Gibbs, who has won four Cup championships with three drivers (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Tony Stewart in 2005 and 2007 and Busch in 2015) embraces the high expectations. He’s shown to be adept at balancing personality and pursuit. And Truex’s win Sunday is the right step forward.
“What I’ve said is in pro sport, big-time sports, if you’ve got any weakness, it’s going to find you,” Gibbs said Sunday after Truex’s win. “I think the key is to try and be as strong as you can all the way across. You got to have great pit stops, obviously got to have the engineering group, Cole (Pearn), the crew chiefs. It just takes everything.”
“I think we’ve worked extremely hard at our race shop. Coy (Gibbs), myself, all the leadership there, everybody, we go to work every day this is all we do. We try and make sure that we don’t leave a weakness.
“That’s hard. You can’t really cover everything. But I think it’s just a lot of hard work, being careful with the people you add. I would say this, it’s all about people. You get the right people together, you’re going to be successful.”