By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It’s hard to imagine Martin Truex, Jr., one of the heavy favorites to win this season’s NASCAR Cup Series title when the playoffs began, had yet to score a single top-10 finish in the playoffs.
That all changed when he finished eighth during Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ending an alarming skid for the time being. At the same time, the result left a lot to be desired.
“We left some on the table,” said Truex on PRN. “We took a big gamble in stage two to lead the race and never really recovered. We had to bide our time and wait on long runs and didn’t get enough of them.”
Entering the Round of 8 opener, luck hasn’t been on Truex’s side as his last top-10 was at Watkins Glen International in August. In fact, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team haven’t scored a single top-15 in that span either.
A much needed top-10 result at LVMS was bittersweet for the 2017 champion considering how things went wrong for the No. 19 once again throughout the 267-lap race.
Stage 1 proved to be the turning point of the race as pit strategy was the name of the game with crew chief James Small deciding to keep Truex off pit road after Kyle Larson won the stage.
Initially, the fifth-place stage finish didn’t show any cracks of vulnerability. But once the second stage began, the No. 19 Toyota began falling apart as they dropped spots which irritated Truex going forward.
Over the radio, Truex made it clear to Small he wasn’t happy with the decision of not pitting in the end of Stage 1.
“Fucking terrible,” said Truex over the radio.
“Sorry. We completely fucked that up,” Small responded.
Afterwards, Truex mentioned to Small that he almost didn’t listed to him, but isn’t “really good” in following through.
“You should have not listened clearly. We have no idea what we’re doing,” Small told Truex.
A caution for a crash by Carson Hocevar was a huge break for the No. 19 team as they pitted Truex, who had to play catch up for the remainder of the race.
Truex was a mad man on a mission every restart, but simply couldn’t crack the top-10 until the bitter end of the race. In fact, he struggled immensely to capitalize on those quick gains and floundered outside the top-15.
Then Truex found some luck when it mattered most to avoid being below the Championship 4 cutoff. As tires were a concern during long green flag runs, Truex gradually improved in the closing laps as he became one of the quicker drivers on the track.
With 15 laps remaining, he finally reached the top-10 and began catching his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin for ninth. Several laps later, Truex caught Hamlin and passed him for ninth where he stayed to end his near two-month skid, but another race where things could’ve been much better.
“It was just trying to figure out how to minimize the damage and hope that we could get a longer run,” said Truex. “We did at the end, which was really helpful. I don’t know what we had going on.
“Restarting up front, we were pretty good, and then on the long runs, really good – I thought – probably a third-place car, but once we got back there – 16th, 18th whatever it was – it was just really bad on the restart.
“I would lose three, four, five spots every time and then once we got strung out and got going, I would pick them off and work our way forward,” Truex continued.
“But then we would get another caution and I would lose a couple more. It was an uphill battle, but luckily at the end, we were able to have a couple of better restarts and at least maintain, and then work our way forward from there. All-in-all, it was okay. The pit call obviously killed us in stage two.”
During post-race inspection, Ryan Blaney was disqualified from sixth after the left-front shock not meeting the overall specified length outlined in NASCAR Rule Book number 184.108.40.206. Therefore, Truex was promoted from ninth to eighth in the official results.
Heading into Homestead-Miami Speedway, Truex will hope next Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) will fare better as Truex won at the 1.5-mile circuit in 2017 and has 12 top-10s in 18 previous starts.
UPDATE: This article is edited to reflect Ryan Blaney’s post-race disqualification.