Martin Truex Jr. looked in his rearview mirror in the closing laps of Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Martinsville Speedway and for a brief moment, felt like he saw a ghost.
As in the racing ghost of NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.
William Byron was doing his best imitation of Gordon — a nine-time Martinsville winner — behind the wheel of the legendary No. 24 Chevrolet while also trying to steal the win away from Truex.
“My original thought was did they put Jeff Gordon back in that car because he was so good here,” Truex said. “So I was like, damn, Jeff is giving (Byron) tips or something. Jeff was amazing here. So to see the 24 running that good was pretty cool, first off, and (Byron) did an amazing job.
“(Byron is) really good on restarts and I felt like every time — even midway through the race when he got to second — there was a lot of times we were in tons of traffic and I kept looking back there and he was just hanging around. So he did a really good job of hanging around all day long.”
Byron was seeking his first career Cup victory — ironically at the same site of Gordon’s 93rd and last career Cup win (Nov. 1, 2015).
“I knew he was hungry,” Truex said of Byron. “I knew he’s never won before, so I knew he was probably willing to do just about anything to get a win, and I just tried my best to try to get a little bit of a gap because I honestly didn’t want him anywhere near me with two or three laps to go. That’s all I was trying to do was just keep a little distance there, and luckily we were able to do that.”
Had the race gone maybe a few more laps, Byron – who was the runner-up by .373 of a second – potentially could have wound up in victory lane rather than Truex.
As it played out, the second-year Hendrick Motorsports driver tied his best Cup career showing, matching his Daytona finish in July. It was also his fifth top-five finish of the season.
“(Truex) was super strong,” Byron told NBCSN when asked if he had anything left for Truex. “Our car bounced a little bit on the short run, which was tough to kind of get around, but overall it was a really good day. This isn’t a place that I’ve loved coming to, and it just clicked this weekend, the things we did with the car going into qualifying and then obviously our race.
“So, I’m super excited, but second is not super fun either. We’ll try to get one spot better next time.”
Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last week at Kansas. Still, he leaves Martinsville 10th in the season standings with three races remaining.
In the eight races since Byron suffered back-to-back 21st-place finishes in the summer race at Bristol and the following week at Darlington, Byron has amassed three top-five finishes (second at Martinsville, fourth at Indianapolis and fifth at Kansas), as well as two other top-10 showings (sixth on the Charlotte Roval and seventh at Las Vegas).
Going back to the closing laps, Byron was asked if he would have pushed Truex out of the way if he would have been able to get to him.
“I wouldn’t race him dirty, but I’m really hungry for my first win, so whatever it takes,” Byron told NBCSN. “But, he ran such a good race, I think he would have been able to drag the brake and do all he could to keep me behind him anyway. So, it was close.”