Analysis: Finish by finish, Martin Truex Jr. emerging as alternative title favorite

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Finishes are top of mind for Martin Truex Jr., practically his sole focus four races into the 2021 playoffs.

But Talladega Superspeedway looms. He hasn’t finished better than 20th at Talladega since May 2016. Furthermore, up until last fall’s playoff race, he went nine consecutive Talladega stages without scoring a single point. As a result, the 2.66-mile track fosters little confidence in the heart of the 41-year-old driver.

“It’s just not been that good to us,” Truex said this week. “I enjoy going there. I enjoy racing there. It’s just been a real challenge to get to the finish, so hopefully, this time around we will have a little bit better luck. Just been caught up in a lot of accidents. Nowhere to hide there.”

Truex heads into Alabama this weekend in need of points — not necessarily a finish. He has four wins to his name this season, helpful in the 31-point cushion he currently enjoys. And while wins, and the instant Round of 8 berth they provide, are fashionable in what’s perceived as a wild-card round, the most realistic path to advancement is the points tally. At least five drivers will go through courtesy of their points stockpile. Truex, barring two poor outings over the next two weeks, should be fine.

That’s where the real fun could begin. If he sustains his current standing and turns in a Charlotte Roval performance worthy of his road racing ability, he’ll come out the other end a favorite in the playoff’s home stretch.

For as good as fellow Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin was on playoff tracks during the regular seasona strength that manifested again the last four weeks — Truex was nearly on par. His three regular-season wins took place at Darlington, Martinsville and Phoenix, all playoff tracks, and he ranked second in points averaged (47.5) at playoff tracks during the regular season, trailing only Hamlin (47.8) and clear of popular championship favorite Kyle Larson (37.3). Now, Truex ranks second in average playoff race finish (4.0), only shy of Hamlin’s 3.3-place mark.

In terms of peripheral statistics at playoff facilities, he and his No. 19 team ranked in the 63rd percentile or higher for restart offense, restart defense and defense of their running position during green-flag pit cycles compared to other playoff teams during the regular season:

Restarts are the primary strength that has carried him through points of adversity during these playoffs, like his pit-road speeding penalty at Darlington and his jumping the start of the race at Richmond. His 81% retention rate on restarts from inside the top 14 is currently best among all championship-eligible drivers across the last four races, a reliable source of positional protection that’s long been an arrow in his quiver.

Truex, though, is bullish on everything his team offers.

“Overall, we’ve been well-rounded,” Truex said. “We all understand when the playoffs start, you’ve got to put all of your best stuff together. I think that’s just what James (Small, crew chief) and the guys were able to do.

“We felt like we had good race cars (during the regular season), good speed. We just weren’t doing all of the little things right. You can’t speed on pit road and do things like that. Just try to clean everything up and be consistent is what we’ve been able to do.”

JGR’s focus this season on 750-horsepower tracks, a course correction from what the organization failed to do in 2020, has continued in the playoffs. While the company appears a rising favorite for the championship — JGR drivers pocketed wins in three of the first four playoff races — it was a form of quiet dominance that went dormant during the summer months that contained few such ovals.

Two tracks that utilized the 750-horsepower rules package, Dover and Nashville, made it seem as if JGR lost a step to Hendrick Motorsports. The difference, though, was literally on the surface.

“We weren’t very good as a company on the concrete tracks, at like Dover and Nashville,” Small said. “Whatever we had going on there, we kind of missed it compared to some of the other cars.

“Across the board, I feel like we’re strong. We’ve been working hard. It’s the bread and butter of the championship — it’s almost all 750 races now, so it’s important to be good.”

The playoffs will conclude with races at Martinsville and Phoenix, both 750-horsepower tracks. In Truex’s wins there this past spring, he demonstrated a side of himself we hadn’t seen much during his Furniture Row Racing era, in which 11 of his 26 wins prior to 2020 came after leading over 45 percent of a race.

The veteran was meticulous in victory earlier this season. He bided time while building speed at Martinsville and did the same before a daredevil restart — “He drove in deep; I drove in deeper” — overtook Joey Logano in Phoenix.

He’s learned to linger long enough during races while working with Small to improve on his car’s handling — and as a byproduct, its speed — another common denominator in his wins at Martinsville and Phoenix, wherein he ranked sixth and 12th, respectively in median lap time during the first stages. The patient demeanor isn’t new, but it’s impact on finishes certainly is.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about where you finish,” Truex said. “We’ve been consistent. We’ve had fast race cars. (The) pit crew has been on it … so hopefully, we can continue to do that.”

If he’s able to maintain this formula for success through the Round of 8, it’d place him among the favorites for the series championship. Just don’t expect the same level of belief in this plan to surface this weekend at Talladega.

“I wouldn’t say I’m 100% confident that we will go there and finish the race,” Truex admitted. “I think if you say that, you are guessing. But I’m confident in our team and what we can do.”