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.”

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.