For Martin Truex, Jr. and the entire No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team, Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series event at Martinsville Speedway will be another exhibit in the perplexing case study that has been the 2023 NASCAR Playoffs.
Capturing the regular-season championship on the strength of three victories, plus nine top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, the Mayetta, New Jersey-native was expected to be a major stakeholder in the decision of who would host the championship trophy in Phoenix.
Instead, it looked as though the team went into hibernation, relying solely on the Playoff Points they accumulated throughout the regular-season, to get the No. 19 Toyota Camry into the ‘Round of 8’.
“I think it just shows how tough this sport is,” Truex said post-race. “Anybody that races here and guys that have raced here that do the broadcasts, they’ll tell you. It’s this close, man. You find this little bit, and suddenly you look like a hero. Some other guys find stuff, suddenly you’re not.
Nine weeks have passed since the regular-season finale at Daytona, and now, the 43-year-old driver is facing the possibility of finishing outside the top-10 in points, after an uncharacteristically poor run in the Playoffs.
“We’ve been fast at times, but execution hasn’t been solid, hasn’t been consistent. We’ve had some bad luck. We’ve had a little bit of everything,” Truex explained further. “Like I said, some years it feels like your tear, some years it feels like it’s not. I just feel we couldn’t do anything right this year. If it was ever a 50/50 call, it always went against us. A blown engine, a flat tire, you name it. Problem after problem.”
Sunday’s 500-lap contest at Martinsville Speedway, where the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion finished 12th, was his second-best result since a sixth-place result at Watkins Glen in mid-August.
Much like Denny Hamlin, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex suffered a major mechanical issue in the round’s middle race at Homestead, which left him with a poor finish, and a difficult points situation to navigate at Martinsville.
After winning the pole on Saturday, Truex displayed substantial pace in the opening stage of the Xfinity 500, picking up some much-needed third-place stage points. But, that’s about the point in the race where things began to unravel.
Truex, who was running inside the top-five, was busted for speeding at the exit of pit road under a caution-flag pit stop at lap 213 — the same issue that polesitter Ryan Preece had in the Spring.
That penalty derailed the entire afternoon for Truex, who was drop-kicked outside the top-25, in a field whose lap times were often covered by three to four-tenths of a second, making passing extremely difficult.
Some progress was made on track immediately after the restart, but that was all wiped away when the crew dropped the jack on the next pit stop, putting the No. 19 back at the tail-end of the lead lap.
With fragments of other Joe Gibbs Racing pit crews disassembled and placed on the table for the No. 19 to use at Martinsville didn’t exactly work to plan, and ended up costing Truex a couple of spots on multiple occasions.
Needing to score a victory – or have a major points day – to advance to the Championship 4, things didn’t end up panning out for Truex, who eventually ended up finishing 28 points below the cutline.
“It’s completely different,” Truex said of racing in the mid-field. “If we couldn’t find a way to flip track position pit stop-wise, we were never going to get there. Our car was good. The field is so tight, so close. Your car drives so much worse in traffic.”
Despite his elimination, and earning his ninth finish outside the top-10 in the last 10 races, Truex was reasonably happy with how the team recovered, rebounding from mistakes on pit road from the driver and crew.
“I felt like we did really good to get back to where we did,” Truex said. “You just burn the tires off so much worse back there in the hot, dirty track, dirty air. You’re in more rubber. It’s just a dogfight. I don’t know. We gave it a hell of an effort. I felt like we had a really strong car. I don’t think we could have beat the 12. He was really, really strong. We were definitely close”
The disappointment of not advancing to the Championship 4 is likely immeasurable for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, after the fantastic regular season the No. 19, as well as his ability to find success at Phoenix Raceway, where the title will be decided.