NASCAR: Red hot Martin Truex Jr. seeks a bigger impact

Nobody in NASCAR is making a bigger current impact than Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Toyota…on and off the track.

Even the most casual NASCAR fan is likely familiar with the axiom “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, the catchphrase of Will Ferrell’s titular character from the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

Martin Truex Jr. is at least partially defying that trope as he works his way through the final stages of the premier Cup Series’ regular season.

The tradition of posing the top three race finishers on a podium has rarely made it to NASCAR…that’s probably for the best these days with social distancing still necessary…but if they did exist, the footprints of the Mayetta Township, NJ native would perhaps be etched into the platform. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished in either second or third place in eight of the last nine races. That streak continued last weekend, as Truex was the silver-medalist in both halves of a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.

“It has definitely been good to run right out front, be running top three,” Truex said after the race on Sunday. “That’s where you need to be running to make your way through the playoffs.”

The Cup Series’ regular season ends in grand fashion on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the iconic superspeedway, known for producing surprise winners, will host the final lead-in to the 16-driver playoff.

Truex doesn’t have to worry about his invitation to the postseason, as the win at Martinsville allows him to compete for the seventh consecutive season. Still, once the playoffs start at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend, an extra win may come in for the No. 19 squad. Recent events have allowed Truex to surge to fourth place in the standings, but, with only a single win to his name, he will own the sixth seed once the playoffs begin. The NASCAR playoff system affords five extra points for each win and one more for every stage triumph. Truex has earned seven such points, which would place him 11 points ahead of the first cutoff. Drivers placed 13th through 16th after the first three playoff races will be eliminated from championship contention.

If anyone knows about the importance of postseason bonus points, it’s Truex. His 2017 Cup Series title, won when he was driving the No. 78 Toyota for the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing, began with a 48-point advantage over the original cutoff thanks to a plethora of wins, stage wins, and the regular-season title. It was the biggest advantage for a regular-season points leader until current point leader Kevin Harvick set himself up with a 54-point lead after his seventh win of the season on Sunday. That tally might only increase depending on how things go at Daytona.

“Obviously, we wish we could have won a few more,” Truex said. “Our bonus point situation isn’t the greatest, and that’s something that we’ve really been working hard on trying to get some more here lately. Just seems like we’re always just right there second or third.”

“Overall it was good. It’s good momentum. It’s good to be consistent. We’ve just got to keep working to find a little bit more.”

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

This unusual season is Truex’s second in a Gibbs Toyota after FRR shut down due to financial woes. While many employees from the No. 78 came over with Truex, his championship crew chief, Cole Pearn, left to pursue other opportunities in auto racing, including a role as a pit road analyst on NASCAR.com. In Pearn’s place went James Small, who served as an engineer on prior Truex endeavors. But, save for a brief two-race stint on Erik Jones’ No. 77 during FRR’s heyday in 2017, Small had never been a crew chief at any of NASCAR’s national levels.

Truex himself admitted prior to the All-Star Race exhibition last month that he “didn’t know we’re where we want to be”, the challenge of a new crew chief only exacerbated by the lack of practice and qualifying in an attempt to trim race weekends down to single-day endeavors. But the past few races have built a strong rapport in the No. 19 garage, one that will be exceptionally dangerous come playoff time.

“He’s doing a great job,” Truex said of Small.  “I think for his first year, he’s doing good and making good decisions.  I think the biggest thing is leading the team, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes.  It’s not just how fast is our car going and how are our finishes and how many races have we won and all that.  There’s a lot behind the scenes going on there.”

“All the guys really have a lot of respect for him, all the team guys, and the guys working on the cars and mechanics and everything,” Truex continued. “He gets along well with all the other crew chiefs. So all those little things.  He really fits in well, I think, and does a good job. Again, he’s really similar to Cole, I think, and obviously learned a lot from him and has been around him a long time. I think he’s done a really fine job, and I think for us, the communication is going well and we’re on the same page.”

Even if Truex hasn’t left the impact he has desired to leave in the winner’s circle, he’s going on to leave a huge impact off the asphalt.

Prior to Sunday’s race, Truex’s self-named foundation announced a partnership with The NASCAR Foundation that will raise money for cancer research. Fans will have the opportunity to bid for a spot to nominate a “cancer hero” to appear on a car across NASCAR’s three national series. Suggested nominees have been described in a release as “a childhood or ovarian cancer champion or a medical provider who made a difference during a cancer patients’ battle”. Over 40 drivers have agreed to partake in the endeavor, with bidding running through September 1.

The charitable endeavor hits close to home for Truex. His girlfriend Sherry was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in 2014. The two have been together since 2005 and formed the foundation two years later, during his days driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud of the idea that the girls came up with it at our foundation,” he said. “It’s been a tough year for us fundraising, and with COVID and all that’s gone on, our big fundraiser of the year had to get canceled. It’s been a bit of a challenge to try to raise money to continue helping all the great people that we’ve been able to have partnerships with and things.”

“I’m really excited about this thanks to NASCAR for teaming up with us and allowing us to do this, and obviously all the teams that have so far agreed to do this…just really proud to be able to do this and continue to help raise money for women and children battling cancer.”

Further information on the Nominate a Cancer Hero Program can be found here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin wins first half of Dover doubleheader

Denny Hamlin passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps to go to take the first half over a doubleheader in Delaware.

In what he certainly hopes is a sign of things to come for the looming postseason, Denny Hamlin not only bested his teammates from Joe Gibbs Racing but outliers from Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports as well.

Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota passed the No. 19 of comrade Martin Truex Jr. with eight laps to go in the first half of a doubleheader at Dover International Speedway. Eight laps around the establishment known as “The Monster Mile” later, Hamlin took home his NASCAR Cup Series best sixth victory of the season, winning the first of two races labeled the Drydene 311. The mile-long track is hosting a pair of 311-lap races as NASCAR continues to play out its full season sets across its national series.

With the win, his first in 29 tries at Dover, Hamlin is tied with Kevin Harvick for the most on the premiere Cup circuit this season. Two races remain before the Cup Series playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway on September 6.

I’m thinking about playoff points to be honest with you,” Hamlin said after the race. “Even though everyone would say, ‘We’re a lock, it’s not a lock’, I’ve had such crazy (stuff) happen to me in these Playoffs during the course of my career, I don’t want to take any chances. I just want to lock in all the Playoff points I can possibly get and get to Phoenix and give myself a shot.” 

Though Harvick is set to clinch the regular season title, Hamlin is set to serve as the second seed thanks to his accumulated wins and stage victories.

Hamlin began the day on the front row thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula. The process has eschewed the random draw for a performance-based setup accounting for speed and finishes in the prior race, as well as placement in the standings. He missed out on leading the opening laps thanks to a strong opening from polesitter Chase Elliott, who won the inaugural Cup race on the Daytona road course last weekend.

Unperturbed by a crash on the sixth lap that ended the day of Kurt Busch, Elliott led until a competition caution came out at the 25th circuit. Hamlin beat Elliott off pit road and took his first lead of the day at lap 71, passing Austin Dillon (who opted not to pit at the competition pause).

After leading the next 78, Hamling returned to the lead at lap 161, passing a desperate William Byron hoping for a caution. Hamlin won each of the first two stages of the race, giving him a series-best seven this season.

With lead laps retreating to pit road after the second stage, Truex emerged as the leader at lap 189, only relinquishing it for his final stop of the afternoon at lap 254. Truex held the lead as that cycle ended, but his teammate Hamlin was able to catch up with him and make the fateful pass for the win. It’s his 43rd visit to victory lane since his Cup career began in 2006 and he also matches his win total from all of last season. He’s the first driver to win at least six races in consecutive years since Jimmie Johnson did so four times (2007-10).

Hamlin is perhaps finding his groove at the perfect time with the regular season dwindling down. He has now finished either first or second in five of the last six races. Truex has likewise been a mainstay at the top of the leaderboard, as Saturday marked his sixth straight finish in the top three.

I knew this would be a good day for JGR,” Hamlin said. “My teammates, I think, are the best two drivers at this racetrack. We’ve started to see some light at the end of the tunnel for us. I think Kansas was a good sign, a lot of our cars in the top five there.  We went to Michigan and had three of our cars in the top five. We’ve been trending better and better as an organization for the last month or so. I knew today was going to be a good day for JGR. Obviously the results showed that.”

Joe Gibbs’ Toyotas rounded out the top three with Kyle Busch’s No. 18 in third. Harvick finished fourth while Elliott recovered from early contact with Clint Bowyer to come home fifth.

The second half of the Drydene 311 will be run tomorrow afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) before the regular season wraps up on Daytona’s traditional oval next weekend.

Race Notes

  • With a seventh-place finish, Jimmie Johnson took over the 16th and final playoff spot from his teammate Byron, whose plan to stay out backfired in the form of a posting in 28th. Johnson, Dover’s all-time leader in wins with 11, leads Byron by three points with two races to go. Winless drivers can clinch a spot in the playoffs with a victory in either of the next two races.

 

  • With the top 20 for Sunday’s field set via inversion of Saturday’s final running order, 20th-place finisher Matt DiBenedetto will start on the pole. DiBenedetto is currently in the playoff field’s 15th seed, leading Byron on 27 points. Ryan Newman (19th) will start alongside him on the front row.

 

  • Forced to retire his No. 1 Chevrolet after just six laps, Kurt Busch failed to finish a race for the first time since the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.

 

  • This weekend marks the final doubleheader on the Cup Series schedule. The lower-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series is also holding a Saturday-Sunday twin bill, with Justin Allgaier winning the former event, clocking in at 200 miles, prior to the Cup race.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: NJ native Martin Truex Jr. on turning 40 and year two with Joe Gibbs

Martin Truex Jr. had a chance to reflect before he leads the field to green at NASCAR’s All-Star showcase at Bristol on Wednesday.

Martin Truex Jr. turned 40 on June 29. Prior to a runner-up finish in Kentucky Speedway’s Quaker State 400 on Sunday, Truex insisted that he wasn’t “feeling” 40. The Mayetta, New Jersey native might have contradicted himself, however, when pressed about the “underglow” lighting NASCAR plans to use for its All-Star Race on Wednesday night at Bristol Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

“I’m not a huge fan of it. I don’t know, I think it’s kind of ridiculous looking,” Truex said with a smirk, perhaps aware his comments against the Fast and Furious-style enhancements were dating him. “It’s really up to what everybody wants and what the fans like. It’s not like we get to vote on it or anything. I found out just a few days ago. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, as well as its competitors, will look different in more ways than one during the annual exhibition. In addition to the underglow, the cars’ side numbers have been pushed back. The race will also feature NASCAR’s first instance of the “choose cone” mandates, where drivers will be allowed to pick their lane on restarts, potentially sacrificing positions to draw their preferred lane.

This will also be the first time the All-Star race is held away from Charlotte Motor Speedway since 1986.

It’ll be Truex’s redesign that leads the field to green in the main event, having drawn pole position in the weekly lineup sweepstakes. Truex has a de facto lifetime pass to the event as one of eight active drivers who have taken home a NASCAR Cup Series title. Other invitees include prior All-Star Race winners and winners from any points race from the prior season or ongoing season up to that point (Rookie Cole Custer held off Truex at Kentucky to earn his spot). Three drivers can race their way in by winning any tier of the NASCAR All-Star Open beforehand and one more will enter via a fan vote.

Truex, however, doesn’t have to worry about his entry with the 2017 Cup Series title under his belt. He appeared to be a bit more focused on the stakes the remaining 19 points races have instead.

This marks Truex second season in Gibbs’ stable, joining the team after his single-car operation at Denver-based Furniture Row Racing shut down. It was in Furniture Row’s No. 78 that Truex earned his Cup title and he has posted back-to-back runner-up finishes in the standings, including last year in the No. 19 (in which he won a circuit-best seven races). After his second-place posting at Kentucky, Truex sits in seventh place in the current ledger. He won June’s 500-lap event at Martinsville Speedway and his nine finishes in the top ten are tied for fourth-best on the circuit. This modern success has been accomplished under the supervision of new crew chief James Small, who previously worked with Truex on the engineering side of things at both FRM and JGR.

Truex made two remarks in his Sunday availability that should inspire some fear into his competition: he feels his No. 19 team hasn’t hit its full potential yet in this new era of no practice or qualifying. That, and the fact he mentioned that he’s showing no inclinations toward retirement despite reaching his fourth decade.

“I don’t know we’re where we want to be right now,” Truex admitted. “I think last year, one of the things we struggled with was unloading off the trailer and being where we wanted to be. I felt like we always had to make a lot of gains throughout the weekends. This year, since coming back without having practice, I feel like it’s hurt us a lot. We’ve had some inconsistencies here and there and we’ve just had some bad races. It’s really not typical for us. I definitely would say we’re not where we want to be from that standpoint.”

“We really just have been missing practice a bit there. Our strength always as a team was figuring out how to get the car better between practice and the race. That was really something we really excelled at and we’ve missed out on that I feel like.”

As for retirement, Truex made it quite clear that he views his 40th birthday in a completely different light from that of his father’s.

“I’m glad to be 40, I’m glad to make it another year,” he remarked. “It’s funny, when I got reminded that it was coming up, I remembered back to when my Dad turned 40 and me thinking how old he was. Getting up there for sure, but I don’t feel 40 so I guess that’s a good thing.”

“I really hadn’t thought much about (how many years I have left) to be honest…I think I just kind of take it as the contracts come along and think about where I’m at, how things are going. Right now, I’m loving what I’m doing, I love my team and I’ve got a lot of great partners that have made it all possible. I think as long as we keep having success, we’ll just keep rolling.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Rookie Cole Custer steals the last lap of a thriller in Kentucky

For the first time in nearly three years, a rookie won in the NASCAR Cup Series, as Cole Custer’s last-lap pass scored an improbable victory.

Kentucky is known for hosting “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” via the Kentucky Derby, whose post time has been pushed to September. The NASCAR Cup Series was happy to partly fill the gap in the meantime at Kentucky Speedway.

The final two laps of the Quaker State 400 took just over a minute to complete, but they certainly retained the level of excitement and intensity the Thoroughbreds often provide on the first Saturday in May. An hour away from Churchill Downs, Cole Custer and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford came out on top at the end of a two-lap shootout, the final portions of the 267-circuit event. The rookie Custer beat out the combined 84 Cup Series wins of Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney to earn his first victory at NASCAR’s premier level.

Custer sat in the sixth position when the caution flag came out for Matt Kenseth’s spin with six laps to go. He got a good push on the outside from fellow first-win seeker Matt DiBenedetto on the outside lane to catapult past the lead trio of Harvick, Truex, and Blaney. Once Custer got into clean air at the front, he was able to hold Truex off by 0.271 seconds to earn his first win in his 20th Cup start.

Custer, 22, has finished in the top five in the final standings in each of the past three NASCAR Xfinity Series campaigns. His full-time Cup Series debut got off to a tough start with only one top-ten finish over his first 15 starts in 2020. But he built momentum with a fifth-place finish at last week’s event at Indianapolis before his historic afternoon at Kentucky. Sunday featured not only the first win for Custer, but also the first win for his crew chief Mike Shiplett. The two united for seven wins at the Xfinity level last season.

The win for Custer proved monumental in other ways on the national level as well. Custer’s win ensures him a spot in the NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Had Sunday’s effort fallen short, Custer would’ve had to race his way into the exhibition by winning one of the three stages of the NASCAR All-Star Open. One more driver will reach the event through a fan vote. Provided he finishes in the top 30 in the points standings, Custer has also more or less clinched a spot in the Cup Series playoffs this fall. He is the first Rookie of the Year competitor to a win a Cup Series race since Chris Buescher won the rain-shortened Pocono event in August 2016 and the first to do so without the assistance of weather since Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma Raceway in 2007 (Trevor Bayne and Brad Keselowski won as part-time drivers in 2011 and 2013 respectively).

Truex, a two-time winner at Kentucky, managed to hold on to the runner-up spot despite late contact with Harvick, who finished third behind DiBenedetto. Defending race-winner Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.

Following the non-points race at Bristol, the NASCAR regular season resumes next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway via the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • Custer currently sits in the 20th spot in the standings but leapfrogs ahead of 16th-place Austin Dillon for the final playoff spot. Dillon was involved in a late incident with Brennan Poole but recovered to finish 13th.

 

  • Jimmie Johnson returned to the track after missing the Indianapolis race due to a positive test for COVID-19. It ended his streak of 663 consecutive Cup Series starts, but two negative tests in a 24-hour span allowed him to return. Johnson was in third place for a restart with 19 laps to go, but contact with Brad Keselowski spun him out and relegated him to an 18th-place finish. He nonetheless holds the final playoff spots via points, 24 points in front of Dillon.

 

  • In addition to Custer, two other rookies finished in the top ten, including Christopher Bell (7th) and Tyler Reddick (10th).

 

  • Aric Almirola saw his streak of consecutive top-five postings end at five races. Almirola still managed a top-ten finish (8th) and won the first stage of the race as part of a streak where he led 128 consecutive laps.

 

  • Benefitting from a separate Kenseth spin, Keselowski (9th) used a late caution to his advantage to win stage two.

 

  • John Hunter Nemechek (accident), Timmy Hill (electrical), Ryan Preece (transmission) all failed to finish

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. takes home Martinsville’s first night race

New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. overcame a penalty to earn another victory at Martinsville Speedway in NASCAR’s Wednesday event.

Martin Truex Jr. was literally lights out on his way to victory on Wednesday night at Martinsville Speedway.

The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Mayetta, NJ native led the final 130 laps of Wednesday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, earning his first victory of the 2020 season at the first NASCAR Cup Series night race in Martinsville history. It’s also the first win Truex has earned under the guidance of first-year crew chief James Small.

Truex posted a fourth-place finish after the first of two 130-lap stages, but was forced to start part two toward the back of the field after failing to adhere to the pit road commitment line. While he made his way back to the front, Joey Logano took home victory in the first stage en route to leading a race-high 234 circuits. Truex made it back to 15th by the end of the second stage while Jimmie Johnson ended Logano’s near-monopoly with a pass on lap 202. Johnson would go on to earn his first stage win since last season’s July Pocono event.

As the third stage commenced, Johnson failed to break up a Team Penske party at the front, as Logano battled his fellow Fords Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski for the lead. Truex was able to get back up to the front by the time the caution flag came out at lap 327 of 500 for an incident involving Erik Jones and David Starr. He eventually passed Keselowski for the lead with 130 circuits remaining and preserved it during pit stops under caution when Quin Houff spun shortly before the 400th go-around. After retaining the lead once more after a furious restart, Truex was able to coast to victory, taking home his second consecutive victory at the short track by a 4.7-second margin.

It’s the 27th Cup Series win for Truex, breaking a tie with his mentor Dale Earnhardt Jr. Truex previously drove in the NASCAR Busch Series (now NASCAR Xfinity Series) in a car owned by Earnhardt Jr., winning two titles at that level.

Ryan Blaney finished in the runner-up spot after an eventful evening of his own. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford started on the pole via draw but found himself a lap down before the end of the first stage. He eventually was able to work his way back to the lead, winning the race off pit road at the end of stage two, but a disastrous pit stop (that included a penalty for having men over the wall too early) pushed him to the rear of the field. He recovered well enough to chase down everyone but Truex, the 2017 Cup Series champion.

Logano and Keselowski finished third and fourth, while Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Wednesday’s race was the first to be run after NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at races. The announcement was made hours before the green flag.
  • The No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet of Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit, bore the “#BlackLivesMatter” insignia. Earlier this week, Wallace called for the banning of the Confederate flag on CNN. He finished fifth in the first stage and sixth after the second and wound up 11th on the evening.
  • Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet lost its crush panels in the very early stages of the race after an incident with his tires. Situated near the driver compartment and wheel wells, crush panels keep heat and fumes out of the car. Dillon was eventually removed from the car with just over 100 laps to go and treated for overheating.
  • Matt DiBenedetto finished seventh, his best finish since a runner-up spot at Las Vegas back in February.
  • In addition to Elliott finishing fifth, every Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet finished in the top ten. Johnson came home 10th, just behind Alex Bowman (sixth) and William Byron (eighth).

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags