By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Coming into this year’s version of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were among the favorites to make it through to the Championship 4, but now that appears to be in doubt following late trouble in Sunday’s 4EVER 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin was fighting for the lead in the late stages of the race on the 1.5-mile oval, having amassed a 12-point gap over the cut-off line and looked to be in good shape heading toward the finish, but with 32 laps to go, everything went awry.
As he was running in third ahead of Ryan Blaney, the two charged into Turn 1 when something appeared to let go in the steering of Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, sending him hard into the outside wall. Though he was able to limp his battered machine back to pit road, the damage was too much for him to be able to continue and he was done for the day.
The final results would show Hamlin in 30th place, now 17 points below the cut-off line with just one race remaining in the Round of 8.
“We tried and it just didn’t work out,” Hamlin said. “Unfortunate for this Sport Clips Toyota team. We really battled back well today – just a tough break.”
After Truex finally turned around his Playoff luck last weekend at Las Vegas with his first top-10 of the postseason, a trying day in South Florida was made even worse for the regular season champion when the power plant on his Toyota went sour while under caution for Hamlin’s crash, also bringing his run to a close well before the finish.
Prior to the engine trouble, Truex was buried deep in the field on the tail end of the lead lap, but the mechanical problems just compounded the day he and his No. 19 team were having, leaving him now equal with Hamlin at 17 points below the cut-off line heading to Martinsville.
“I think it shows you how hard our sport is,” team owner Joe Gibbs said afterwards. “We had such a disappointment with the 11, Denny, cutting a tire down. I felt like he was fast. Martin qualified on the pole. I thought we had a chance with that car.
“A series of circumstances, then lose the motor. Shows you how hard the sport is because those were the two cars for a while for us that were up front.”
If there was a silver lining to the disappointing day at Homestead for the JGR duo, it’s that the final race to make it to the Championship 4 is Martinsville, where both Hamlin and Truex have had success in the past.
Hamlin has won five times at the half-mile bullring, also accumulating 18 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s in 35 career starts. Likewise, Truex has three wins at Martinsville, along with 10 top-five finishes and 16 top-10 finishes.
In the 2023 spring race at Martinsville, both drivers finished inside the top-five, with Truex finishing third and Hamlin scoring a fourth-place finish.
“It’s hard to get in the Final 4. I’ll tell you that,” Gibbs added of heading to Martinsville on the outside looking in. “I don’t think anything’s a given. Certainly the 19, all they did in regular season, like I mentioned, as good as they are, but we’ve had real disappointments with everything that’s happened.
“I think the 11 has been pretty consistent up until the last couple of weeks. I think you’re looking at it, and the great thing is we have three cars for our team that have a chance. We still got a chance. That’s the way we look at it.
“I think we’re going to Martinsville, it’s going to be a classic, I’m sure. But we do have a chance.”