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.”

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, on Wednesday. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Championship Weekend returns to Phoenix in 2024


Phoenix Raceway will host the championship races for the Cup, Xfinity, Craftsman Truck and ARCA Menards Series in 2024, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

The races will be held Nov. 1-3, 2024. The Cup season finale will be Nov. 3, 2024. The only other Cup race for 2024 that has been announced is the Daytona 500. It will be held Feb. 18, 2024.

Phoenix Raceway has hosted the championship finale for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks since 2020. Chase Elliott won the Cup title there in 2020. Kyle Larson followed in 2021. Joey Logano won the crown there in 2022.

This year’s Cup finale at Phoenix will be Nov. 5 and air on NBC.



Drivers to watch at World Wide Technology Raceway


After the fireworks from the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR heads to World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile speedway just outside of St. Louis. Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the second time the Cup Series has raced at this track.

Much is at stake. The race to win the regular season championship has intensified. Tempers are high. The pressure to make the playoffs builds. Ten drivers have wins this season. Twelve races remain in the regular season.


Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 11th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Richmond, Martinsville)
  • Past at WWTR: 12th last year

While a driver coming off back-to-back finishes of 20th or worse might not seem like a frontrunner, it actually does make Larson one. His topsy-turvy season has seen him place outside the top 10 in back-to-back races four times. In the three previous times he had consecutive finishes outside the top 10, he came back to finish second, first and second. Can he keep that streak going this weekend?

Bubba Wallace

  • Points position: 15th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Las Vegas I, Kansas I, Coca-Cola 600)
  • Past at WWTR: 26th last year

Wallace has scored three consecutive top-five finishes, his best streak in his Cup career. He has climbed from 21st to 15th in the standings during this run.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Darlington I)
  • Past at WWTR: 19th last year

Byron has finished no worse than seventh in the last five races. He’s led nearly 20% of the laps run during that time. Byron has averaged nearly 47 points a race during that streak.


Corey LaJoie

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Atlanta I)
  • Past at WWTR: 36th last season

NASCAR’s one-race suspension to Chase Elliott gives LaJoie the chance to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car for the first time. This will be the best car LaJoie has driven in his career. Many eyes will be on him to see how he does.

Ross Chastain

Chastain has finished 29th and 22nd in the last two points races. He’s not gone more than three races without a top-10 finish this season. After his struggles last weekend at Charlotte, Chastain saw his lead cut to one point over Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney in the standings. Five drivers are within 17 points of Chastain in the season standings.

Aric Almirola

  • Points position: 26th
  • Best finish this season: 6th (Martinsville I)
  • Past at WWTR: 5th last year

Almirola has finished 13th or worse in all but one race this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the five races since placing sixth at Martinsville, Almirola has finished an average of 21.0.