Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – That Martin Truex Jr. led a race best – and career high – 464 of 500 laps last Sunday en route to his series-leading seventh Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season cannot be lost in the post-race shoving fracas that took place between his fellow Playoff contenders Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway.
The 2019 Playoff intensity level is up, as expected. And while Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team have won their way into the Championship 4 Round, his work only settles one piece of the Playoff puzzle. There are still three more positions up for grabs to fill the championship eligible slate-of-four for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
This week’s Texas Motor Speedway stop, in particular, has been the scene of high emotion with a highlight reel full of driver drama. In the hours immediately after the Martinsville checkered flag, the Texas track had already come up with promotional material featuring the Hamlin vs. Logano Martinsville pit road run-in.
Fittingly, Hamlin and Logano are among the current top four of the Playoff standings and both have victories at the two remaining tracks – Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix’s ISM Raceway that will ultimately decide the four title contenders.
Hamlin, seven-points behind the Playoff standings leader Martin Truex Jr., and JGR teammate, regular season champion Kyle Busch, lead all eight Playoff drivers with three wins each at Texas, where the series races Sunday in the AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Hamlin is also the most recent Texas winner with a victory this Spring. He also swept the 2010 season races.
Busch earned his Texas trophies in 2013, 2016 and 2018 – but all three came during the Spring events, not the Fall Playoff races. Similarly, Logano’s only Texas win came in Spring, 2014.
In the last five seasons, Kevin Harvick – who is fifth in the standings, 14 points behind Logano – is the only Texas Playoff race winner (2017 and 2018) among those still fighting for the 2019 trophy. And Harvick and Busch are the only multi-time Texas winners in the last 11 races at the 1.5-mile track among those eight.
Four championship eligible drivers are still vying for their first Texas win. Truex is among that group with a career-best runner-up showings in the 2017 Playoff race and 2013 Spring race.
Ryan Blaney, who finished an impressive fifth at Martinsville on Sunday, is ranked sixth in the standings, 15 points behind his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano. Two of Blaney’s career top-10 finishes in nine Texas starts have been top five efforts. In fact, his best overall day in Fort Worth was a runner-up finish to Harvick in last year’s Playoff race – winning the pole position and leading 40 laps in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. In 2017, he led a race best 148 laps only to finish 12th. He was sidelined early at Texas this April when his car suffered from an over-heating issues.
Although not a victory, Blaney was optimistic following his top five effort last Sunday at Martinsville. And he likes his chances at Texas.
“Confident,” Blaney said of his outlook. “Our car was really good there in the first race this year. We were leading when we blew up, so looking forward to going there.”
Larson, the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has four top-10 finishes – three of them top five efforts at Texas. His best outing was a runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in Spring, 2017. He was fifth in last year’s Playoff race – his only checkered flag finish in the last four races. He crashed out this April and finished 39th. Larson is currently 24 points behind Logano in the Playoff standings.
Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, earned his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Texas Motor Speedway in 2014 and has an impressive five top-10 finishes in seven Monster Energy Series starts there – including his first four Cup races. His best showing is fourth in the 2016 Playoff race. He was sixth in last year’s Playoff race, leading a career-best 35 laps. He’ll need to resurrect some of that positive energy this weekend as he shows up ranked eighth among the eight Playoff drivers – 44 points behind fourth place Logano after his car suffered mechanical problems at Martinsville. He was 13th at Texas this Spring.
Although Elliott’s 36th-place finish at Martinsville makes for a tough road to overcome, the 23-year old – a three-race winner in 2019 – seemed as determined as ever about earning his first ever Championship 4 appearance.
“That is certainly the case now,” Elliott said. “We do have to win.”
And judging by the most recent race, passion will not be a problem.