MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Martin Truex Jr. said it well upon joining the NASCAR on NBC postrace show Sunday night after his first career win at Martinsville Speedway.
“I don’t give a damn,” the championship favorite said with a broad smile greeting Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Krista Voda (video above).
It was referencing his take on the postrace scuffle between the Nos. 11 and 22 teams, but it also could have been in general about the philosophy of the No. 19 Toyota team.
Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn never have cared about anyone’s opinions but those they share with each other and among their crew.
It’s how they were able to survive a difficult 2014 (their first season together) when Pearn never questioned Truex’s concerns about an ill-designed chassis (which Truex recently discussed during the Letarte on Location Podcast).
And it’s how they’ve built into a perennial championship contender that forcefully has emerged as the class of these 2019 playoffs — by far.
Truex’s average finish of 6.3 the past seven races is easily the best in Cup (and skewed by a 26th at Talladega), and his 317 total points in the playoffs dwarf the total of second-ranked Denny Hamlin (by 42).
“Yeah, it feels damned good to be the best right now,” Truex said.
Truex and Pearn are doubly dangerous now.
They will have extra time to prepare for the Camry for the championship finale, an advantage that has proved critical as two of the past three Martinsville winners have won the championship (Jimmie Johnson in 2016 and Joey Logano in ’18).
And they also can make life extremely difficult on their three title rivals by winning at Texas and Phoenix and making whoever will join them at Homestead-Miami Speedway sweat longer while counting every point.
It’s what Truex and Pearn faced in each of the previous three times they made the championship round. They still won in ’17 and might have had the best car on long runs last year (when a late caution bit and allowed Logano to pass Truex on a restart for the title).
Now they have a chance to spend a little more time optimizing their stuff for the Nov. 17 finale.
“We’ve never been in this position before,” Truex said. “It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here.
“I mean, obviously there’s going to be a lot of effort put into our car for Homestead, which is probably already started, but now there will be a little bit of extra time for Cole and the guys to work on their thoughts and their plan. But we’re going to go try to win the next two. Just like (Martinsville), we’ve never won the next two tracks, and we want to, so here we go.”
With the high downforce and low horsepower untested at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this is a good season to have an extra two weeks of prep, too.
“We’ve kind of been working on Homestead already, but now we’ll be able to kind of dive into it deeper,” Pearn said. “It’s going to be a challenging year.
“I think every Homestead, we’ve never gone through a big rules change like we’re going to experience this time. Usually you’re able to work on last year’s notes and things like that, and this year that’s not the case.
“You’re going to a track for the first time with this rules package and you’ve got two 50‑minute practices to figure it out. We can work all we want on it, but to know exactly what we want to do is still a bit of a guess.”
Chances are, Pearn and Truex will be figuring it out first with a head-start.
And they won’t give a damn if and when anyone else does.
The fan sentiment and the heightened stakes for next year’s races make it clear that NASCAR must improve the racing at Martinsville next season.
Two races with three lead changes apiece isn’t going to cut it at a track that typically produces great racing at the front (witness the battle between Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in the March 26, 2018 race that was the most consistently memorable recently).
And as Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it starts with tire wear.
Despite a Goodyear test in July at the 0.526-mile oval, NASCAR returned with the same left-side tire last weekend as it has used for the past seven seasons at Martinsville. In March, team engineers estimated it could run 3,000 laps without being changed. On Sunday, it seemed like 10,000.
“I’m probably going to make the people at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company mad, and they do a fantastic job building good tires,” Jarrett said. “But I think with this package, they have been too far on the safe side with these tires.
“I think that a softer tire right and left side, but the left-side tires, the drivers and a couple of crew chiefs tell me they literally wouldn’t have to change left-side tires as far as wear goes. That’s how little tire wear they were getting. The tires are way too hard. You need tire wear to make good racing and changes throughout a run because handling comes into play even more. If your tire doesn’t change other than the air pressure building, whoever has the car out front is going to have the best situation.”
Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. certainly proved that in 2019, combining to lead an astounding 910 of 1,000 laps. Some of that undoubtedly could be attributed to the high-downforce package with the massive spoiler creating a turbulent wake for any trailing car. Though there were some exceptions for strong cars (such as Chase Elliott’s No. 9 starting from the rear and reaching the top five in the first 180 laps), the disconcerting specter of aerodynamics on a short flat track is a serious problem.
“I’m sure we’re kicking a dead horse, but passing was just so difficult,” said pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, who never led again after losing the lead in the pits. “You just couldn’t overcome it. I certainly couldn’t overcome it.
“Hate to say it: This is a new Martinsville. It’s not the Martinsville of old where if your car is really good you can make it through the field.”
NASCAR needs the old Martinsville back, and even if the rules already are set for 2020, it should look at all means necessary for accomplishing that.
It’s understandable that Goodyear wants to avoid the negative PR of failures that accompany building a less bulletproof tire that wears more quickly.
But the optics of two more clunkers next year at Martinsville – which will host a prestigious night race and the gateway to the championship race — would be much, much worse.
Is Kyle Busch really all that much unhappier this season? Or are we just getting a more frequent window into how much Busch hates losing because of NASCAR’s new mandatory media availability policy that requires all playoff drivers to do postrace interviews?
Even some members of Busch’s fervently supportive Rowdy Nation have begun asking why their hero seems to be smiling less this season.
But look no further than his most recent Wednesday appearance on NASCAR America’s Motor Mouths show – the third time that Busch has been engaging, funny and self-deprecating a few days after a finish in which he was seething – to realize what team owner Joe Gibbs has seen when he talks to his driver a day removed from the racetrack on Monday nights.
“He has a great sense of humor at night when I call him,” Gibbs said, pausing to chuckle. “‘When are you going to give me the good car?’ Stuff like that.”
Maybe much like Tony Stewart’s infamous truculence, there isn’t much more to say about Busch’s postrace curtness other than this:
He is an acknowledged sore loser who once simply ducked the media when he had little to say because he knew it won’t come off well.
“I’m not sure we can analyze that, OK?” Gibbs said Sunday when asked what was wrong with the No. 18 driver. “Think about his whole life. He’s got (wife) Sam and (son) Brexton, but other than that, it’s racing. And when something goes bad in racing for him, think about how important that is, and it upsets him.
“Normally the next day he’s a lot better at the race shop and everything, but I think this has been a tough stretch for him.”
Normally in previous seasons, Busch often would have declined comment while purposefully striding away after a disappointing result. This year’s new media policy precludes that without facing punishment.
He seems to accept the consequences of how that (fairly) is perceived in a negative light.
Maybe we should accept it, too, without overanalyzing beyond that.
The spin that saved Joey Logano’s championship hopes at Martinsville was suspicious in its intent, but it’s hard to judge the Team Penske driver if he did loop his car intentionally.
With the dearth of “natural” caution flags the last few years (particularly for debris), there also have been some more notable single-car spins with flat tires – particularly on the apron at large tracks – that avoid contact with the wall or other cars.
NASCAR officials also are in a spot with the way they’ve called yellows this year (e.g., the sometimes quick trigger fingers at the Roval). When asked by NBCSports.com about the Logano incident, a spokesman said it wasn’t reviewed by the scoring tower.
As Dale Jarrett noted on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, it’s logical for drivers to put the onus on NASCAR to make a call for an intentional spin that probably wouldn’t be much worse of a penalty than falling two laps down on a green-flag stop.
By the way, there was nothing particularly incriminating on the 22 radio about the spin. Crew chief Todd Gordon told Logano he thought his tires, specifically the left front, were up. Logano responded, “I’m pretty sure they’re flat. Or one of them is flat. I spun out.”
A team spokesman said the left rear went flat, and all four tires were changed on the stop.
Mechanical failures on consecutive days crippled Chase Elliott’s championship hopes, but team owner Rick Hendrick maintained a positive outlook.
“I don’t know how many motors we build a year, and we have one that breaks a rod bearing, and rear ends, we build them for (Kyle Larson) and several other teams, and it’s just a fluke,” Hendrick said. “You have mechanical parts, they’re going to break. I don’t think it’s anything to clean up. It’s hard to believe it could happen to (Elliott) twice in a weekend. Two different things, though, so we’ll see what we can do. It’s just go out and try to win Texas.”
Coupled with an early failure at Dover International Speedway, the No. 9 Chevrolet has endured two engine failures and an axle breakdown in the past four races. Even if they aren’t flukes, it might not be a process that can be addressed before the championship finale (if Elliott reaches the title round).
“Rick Hendrick is a great mentor, friend, boss and businessman because he’s going to compliment in public and criticize and question in private,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte said on NASCAR America Splash & Go this week. “He’s going to ask, ‘What in the heck is going on? How can this happen?’ I don’t disagree with what he said. These things do happen. Amazing it’s happening to the absolute wrong car at Hendrick at the absolute wrong time.
“But there’s nothing they can change in five days (to fix it). No process. No procedure. No radar vision to look at these parts. Failures are a product of whatever procedures you have ahead of time. If you want to avoid failures, you have to work on procedures upstream. I’m sure changes will be made at Hendrick but nothing that will have an effect on the next few weeks.”
There isn’t much more to analyze about the scuffle between the teams of Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, the feuding that precipitated it or the punishment that has followed.
So how about another Zapruder-esque examination of what was said between the drivers in the run-up to Logano’s shot to Hamlin’s right shoulder?
Let’s go to our crack staff in Stamford, Connecticut, that helpfully scrutinized the audio from what was caught on camera:
Logano: “You went all the way up, like …”
Logano: “Like all the way, like I wasn’t even there.”
Hamlin: “I knew you were there.”
Logano: “Put me into the wall.”
Logano: “You wouldn’t have known (that I was there). You were driving like I wasn’t even there.”
Hamlin: “No. I knew you were there, but I was just trying to take all the space I could.”
Logano: “I’ll take all the space I want to now. Just think about that. In the future, I can take the space.”
Hamlin raises finger, Logano hits shoulder, fracas begins.