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


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.”

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum


The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

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Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:


Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.


Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?







Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing


Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.