Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FORT WORTH, TX – Martin Truex Jr. arrives at Texas Motor Speedway still feeling perhaps a bit robbed of at least two Playoff victories, including last week at Martinsville Speedway when a final lap tussle between Truex and Joey Logano resulted in Logano’s victory and a ticket for him to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race later this month in Miami, Florida.
The near-miss last week with Logano was the fourth-time Truex has been in late-race contention for a victory in the Playoffs and come just short of hoisting a trophy. So Truex may very well be the driver most looking forward to a hard-nosed redemption opportunity this week in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The reigning Monster Energy Series champion has never won at Texas, but he sure has come close. You’d be hard-pressed to a find a more motivated organization this week than Truex’ No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota team, which is disbanding at the conclusion of the season.
“We have faced plenty of adversity in the Playoffs so far but we’re still in it,” said Truex, who is fourth in the standings – tied with seven-race winner Kevin Harvick – 23-points behind Playoff standings leader Kyle Busch.
The top four drivers in the standings will be championship eligible for the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That includes any race winners in the next two weeks among the eight current Playoff drivers, plus the highest ranking driver (s) in the standings.
“We should have been in Victory Lane at both Charlotte and Martinsville and have a secured transfer spot for the championship round at Homestead,” Truex said, referring to a pair of races where he was overtaken by daring last lap passes.
“Our guys at the track and at the shop are giving everything they have. They all want that championship as bad as I do. None of us are quitting because the team is shutting down at the end of the season. We all have one mission and that’s to successfully defend our championship.”
Frankly, there would be no better time for Truex to score his first Texas win than on Sunday. He had an incredible streak of six straight top-10 finishes at the track prior to this April; when his car had a flat tire and hit the wall only 80 laps into the 334-lap race.
Truex was runner-up to Harvick in this race last year en route to a dramatic career first championship. He was runner-up in the spring of 2013 and has four top-three finishes at the track. He’s led 363 of his 595 career laps led (61 percent) at Texas in just the last five races.
“We sure have had our opportunities to cash it in at Texas, but have not been able to close the deal there,” Truex said. “If we can stay away from mistakes, accidents and continue to have fast pit stops we should be right there battling it out as one of the contenders.
“I think strategy at Texas all depends on how the cautions fall, what’s going on in the race and what kind of day the Playoff drivers are having. I try not to worry about all the things on the outside, what people are talking about. All the noise. Just block it all out.
“I feel like that’s one of my strong suits as a driver and hopefully that will work in my favor again.’’
XFINITY IS UP FOR GRABS
A first-lap accident collecting four Xfinity Series Playoff cars in this round’s opener at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago shuffled the championship standings significantly and really makes this week’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) even more significant in the title hunt.
The two winningest drivers of 2018 were caught up in the Kansas melee – six-time race winner Christopher Bell and five-time race winner, regular season champion Justin Allgaier among them. The result is a points shuffle that has early season championship leader Elliott Sadler leading the way again.
Sadler, who paced the championship field for 15 weeks early in the season, announced that this will be his final full season of NASCAR competition. And he’d obviously, like nothing more than to hoist a championship trophy on his way out.
He holds a one-point advantage on second place Daniel Hemric, who is three points up on third place rookie Tyler Reddick and 13 points ahead of fourth place Bell. Just behind and needing to break into the top four to advance to the Nov. 17 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway are Matt Tifft (one-point behind Bell), Allgaier (-5), Cole Custer (-23) and Austin Cindric (-43).
Although Sadler hasn’t won an Xfinity race at the Texas track – nor have any of the 2018 title hopefuls – he does have an impressive 10 top-10 finishes in the last 11 races – the other result, 11th. His best showing is a runner-up finish in 1998 but he was fourth-place in the 2017 Playoff race – first among the Playoff contenders.
GO TIME IN TRUCKS
Johnny Sauter’s victory last week at Martinsville Speedway marked a career-high six season wins and serves as the golden ticket for an opportunity to defend his 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship on Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And there are no expectations for the veteran to slow down soon. He is the two-time defending winner at Texas Motor Speedway, site of Friday night’s Jag Metals 350 (at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). In fact Sauter (five wins) is one winner’s cowboy hat away from tying Todd Bodine for the most series victories (six) at the track. A win would also put him one-victory shy of Brendan Gaughan’s record of four consecutive wins at the track.
And yet for all of Sauter’s hard work, the 2018 championship remains very much in heated contention. With Sauter already in the Championship 4, Noah Gragson now leads the standings with a 24-point edge over Justin Haley in fifth place and 34 points over Matt Crafton in sixth.
However, Haley is only two points behind fourth place Grant Enfinger and 15 points behind third place Brett Moffitt – keeping this weekend’s Texas race crucial in a tightly-contested run to be championship eligible.
Sauter and Crafton – who won in 2014 – are the only two drivers currently championship eligible with previous victories at Texas. In fact, this is only Moffitt’s second race at the 1.5-mile speedway and the fourth ever for Gragson, Haley and Enfinger.