If only they raced on paper instead of asphalt.
And if only they raced in “Yesterday’s Gen,” instead of the Next Gen stock car.
Since the modernizing, re-modernizing and eventual overhaul of NASCAR’s method of determining a champion, drivers like Martin Truex Jr., when partnered with teams like Joe Gibbs Racing, are always on stage when the final acts begin to play out.
The 2017 Cup champ was championship runner-up three of the next four years. And frankly, it’s not like he’s been muddling along in the background this year. He’s been there, right there, but not at the right time.
What’s happening here? It’s complicated.
“For whatever reason, it’s just been really hard to put it all together,” Truex said during a Friday afternoon phoner.
They told us things were bound to change when the newest version of Cup Series machinery — the Next Gen — rolled off the haulers this year. The gulf between the Haves and Wanna Haves would narrow, dramatically in some ways, as the discrepancy in team treasuries were being purposely minimalized.
Case in point: Martin Truex might very well miss the 16-team playoffs.
Ryan Blaney, too.
Kevin Harvick, a championship contender or outright factor for most of his 21-year Cup career, was destined for outsider status until some fortunate yellow-flag timing presented itself last week at Michigan.
Harvick is playoff-bound. Blaney is hanging onto the final spot, though his grip is slippery.
That leaves Truex and his No. 19 Gibbs Racing Toyota as the most unlikely current snub. He sits 17th in the playoff standings, given how 15 drivers have won races this season (to virtually clinched playoff spots), and how Blaney, like Truex a non-winner, is 19 points ahead of Truex.
Fair or unfair is debatable and surely depends on your view and/or rooting interest, but as testament to the freak nature of Truex’s current outsider status, he sits fourth in points gathered this season. Fourth out of 36 full-time teams, yet without a playoff berth as it stands now.
Also, his seven stage wins are two more than the next highest.
“If we get in the playoffs, we think we can go far. If we can just win a damn race,” he said. “We need to do it and hopefully we can.
“It’s not one thing. That’s really been the toughest part of it all. I feel like we’re doing things right. We’ve had cars we should’ve won with. Made some mistakes, but that’s all part of racing.”
A glance at the upcoming schedule suggests it might be time for Truex to “win a damn race.” This weekend brings Richmond, where Truex has won three times and finished no worse than fifth in his last six starts. After that is Watkins Glen, where his last four finishes are first, second, second and third.
Yep, looks promising on paper, but we’re talking asphalt tracks and a piece of machinery that’s been just a tad perplexing — and in big-league auto racing, tads add up.
“It’s always nice to go to tracks that you’ve been good at before,” Truex said. “But obviously, this year it’s so different with the new car. It’s hard to use past success. Richmond, we ran well in the spring (fourth, 80 laps led). That’s probably our biggest positive going forward.
“Watkins Glen, obviously a great track for us. But we’ve struggled on road courses with this car this year. It’s been a struggle for all the Toyota teams. We’ll see. We’re optimistic. It’s gonna be a challenge, but we’re looking forward to it.”
But wait, you might think, even if Richmond and the Glen don’t work out, there’s still one regular-season race remaining after that. Yeah, Daytona and the Coke Zero 400, the wildest of wild-cards given the general nature of field-equalizing plate-racin’ combined with do-or-die playoff implications.
If you think Truex’s 2022 situation is statistically befuddling (the seven stage wins, fourth in points, no playoff guarantee), consider his career at sister tracks Daytona and Talladega. He’s a combined 0-for-69 at those two white-knuckling behemoths.
You’d think, if nothing else, a win would’ve fallen in his lap in those 69 attempts. It happens, you know, especially at those unpredictable tracks. Also, back in February, Truex won the first two stages before the all-too-familiar circumstances landed him in 13th at the checkers.
“We had an amazing car, won the first two stages,” he said. “But we had an incident on pit road, got sent to the back and got in a wreck. Been snake-bitten a lot.
“I feel like every time we’ve finished there, we’ve been in the top five. We just haven’t figured a way to win. I need to keep working on that.”
Frankly, that’s all you can do, which is either good news or bad, likely depending on where you sit on that playoff bubble.
— Reach Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org