AVONDALE, AZ — Kyle Larson has won nine times during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season including four of which occurring during this year’s postseason. In fact, he’s won three of the last four races in general. Larson, has 18 top five finishes, 24 top 10’s and 2,474 laps led in 35 races.
He’s the favorite to take home the Cup championship on Sunday afternoon in the Arizona desert.
But, if he doesn’t win, why not Denny Hamlin. He’s been the second best driver this season. Hamlin, has a pair of wins this year with 18 top five finishes, 24 top 10’s and 1,502 laps led himself.
Between the duo, they’ve won six of the nine playoff races, 10 of the 18 stages this postseason and led 56% of the laps. Isn’t this their race title to lose?
Chase Elliott is the defending Cup champion and won this very race last year. He enters having scored a runner-up in the penultimate race of the Round of 8 to go along with leading a race-high 289 of 501 laps last Sunday in Martinsville.
Larson has led the most laps all year, Hamlin in second and Elliott in third.
But, here Martin Truex Jr. is battling against them for the title at the Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN) on Sunday. Is he playing with house money?
“Yeah, I mean, I guess it’s just — I think it’s easier for me to deal with it that way,” Truex said. “I don’t really — I hadn’t really, I guess, been in any other positions before to understand that. But understanding what this weekend is, what it’s all about, how big it really is and how to kind of control everything around you and focus on what matters, excited to get in the car tomorrow and see what we have and go to work.”
While he’s a sleeper, he should in fact be a favorite though. He’s led the fourth most laps all season (793) and while his 12 top fives and 19 top 10’s pale in comparison to Larson and Hamlin, Truex was the one who last won a race on the 1-mile track in the west valley. In fact, Truex has five top six finishes in his last eight Phoenix starts.
He also has three wins on short tracks this season via victories at Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond.
So, while some may point to only having one top five in his last five starts on the season and winless in his last seven, why not Truex?
“As good as my car was that day, I was hoping — I told somebody last week before the race, or a few people, I think in my media stuff, that we really all summer were looking forward to Martinsville and Phoenix,” he said of his chances.
“All summer we were like, we’ve just got to get there. We’ve just got to get there. We made it, so here we are. We’ll see what we can do with it. I feel good.
“I mean, we’re here, so I feel really, really good. We’ll see. That was a long time ago car-wise and team-wise. The roles and what we have now, I don’t know where we stack up against the Hendrick cars, honestly. They’ve been really, really strong.
“We’ll see, but our car was crazy. Just the way it felt in the spring was amazing, and I’m hoping we can get that feel with even more speed this weekend.
“Phoenix has been a good track; 750 tracks have been kind of what we’ve been our best at this year, not only JGR but the 19 especially. All four of our wins have come with this package and these rules.
“We definitely had the best car, no question. We had to pit for some damage at the end of Stage 1 and drove all the way through the field to second Stage 2 and took the lead in Stage 3 and never looked back.
“Then we had a little bit of issue on a restart and fell back to fifth or something and drove our way back to the front again. I definitely felt like we had the best car, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.
“That was the best car I’ve ever had here in my whole career. I’ve been coming here since 2004. The car felt really good. It did a lot of really good things. If we can make that happen again and hopefully have even more speed, we’re going to be tough to handle.
“We need to make sure we hit it right. And obviously that was a while ago. Things have changed, rules, tech procedures, et cetera. Things will be a little bit different. Certainly the weather is going to be different. It’s going to be hotter out here than it was then, as well.
“No PJ1, just spraying resin I think today, and then not again all week. The track is going to be different, and you’ve got to go out there and practice and do what you always do.
“That is use your best guess intuition and your feel and your gut, engineering and all those things that go into it and put it all together and hopefully mash it all together and come out with a winning car on Sunday.
“I enjoy the 750 stuff, so I’m fired up and excited about this weekend. I think we can get it done.”
This is his record tying fifth Championship 4. Hamlin has been to three straight now but Larson is in his first and Elliott in his second. How much does experience play into this?
“Yeah, I think obviously the tracks just being so different is really the only difference in the preparation here,” he said. “How you approach this place is so different. That’s really it.
“Aside from that, the same working with the team and talking with them and having a game plan and trying to figure out how to work through practice and how to qualify again. We haven’t done it in a long time, so it’s going to be a lot of fun this weekend.
“Just the track, how you approach it. Homestead is super, super fast, but super high tire wear. You’re always kind of in a compromise there of how fast can we make the car take off to how much is it going to fall off as far as where you want the balance and how you want it to drive and things like that.
“Here tires aren’t really a big deal. They do fall off some, especially here lately, but you’ve got to be able to take off fast here and hopefully just make it hang on enough to stay with the field.”
This is the second year that Phoenix has hosted the final round and Truex wasn’t in it last year like Elliott and Hamlin were. But, for a guy with 89 playoff races under his belt and 10 wins during his postseason career, why not Truex?
With a title, does this propel Truex up the pecking order in all-time greats? He’s been close a few times before and two of them sting.
“Really honestly both ’18 and ’19. I mean, ’18 we were down in the car and we had the race won and late caution and we get beat because it took us eight or ten laps to get going. It was like the worst case scenario to get beat with the best car.
“And 2019 we kind of beat ourselves, which hurt. I felt like both years hurt equally bad because we had the best car and we were in position, we led most of the race in both of them, and it just didn’t play out the way we needed it to. So they both stung a lot.
“2015 was just kind of like we didn’t even know what we were doing. We were just like, how did we do this? How did we even get here? We finished fourth, but we didn’t have high expectations.
“I think we weren’t even really on our own radar at that point.”
No, he hasn’t won a Bristol Night race, Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400. But, he has won a Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600. A championship on Sunday would be his second. His 31 wins right now ranks 28th on the all-time wins list, one shy of tying Dale Jarrett, who’s also in the Hall of Fame now, for 27th. Both Kurt Busch and Fireball Roberts are next up with 33 wins.
Final Fours are a stat that’s going to be a big metric in holding a lot of weight for future stats and no one has more than his five. Only Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have as many. If he wins a title, just he and Kyle Busch would be the only ones with multiple championships during this new era that began in 2014.
Truex, would be a fitting champion and one that can fly under the radar and steal a championship on Sunday.
“I haven’t thought about it honestly,” he said of his legacy. “I try not to think about those kind of things, whether it’s number of wins or what championships mean or where your place in the overall sport is.
“I think those are things you look at when you’re done and you can look back and you can say, Man, why did I do that or why didn’t I do that? I just focused on the weekend and trying to get it done, but two would certainly be amazing. We’ve been close. Couple heartbreaking years in ’18 and ’19 we’d like to make up for.”
Crew Chief Corner: James Small
Since making his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series as a Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief in 2017, James Small has proven that he is one of the rising stars in the sport to keep an eye on. He made his Cup debut with Erik Jones running two races in 2017 before moving the No. 19 and driver Martin Truex Jr. in 2020. During his two seasons of full-time competition (2020, 2021) with Truex the pair have made 70 starts posting five wins and have qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in consecutive seasons (2020-21). This is the first year Small has earned a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 Round; his previous best final Cup standings finish was seventh in 2020.
The Truex-Small pair has combined for the following achievements in 70 NASCAR Cup Series races together:
- 5 wins
- 25 top fives
- 41 top 10s
- 1,690 laps led
- 0 poles
- One NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 appearance (2021)
- One NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs appearances (2021)
Small will look to capture his first NASCAR Cup Series championship this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. If he accomplishes the feat, Daniels will become the 42nd different crew chief in the series with a championship.
Continuing Joe Gibbs Racing’s excellence
Winning and excellence are ingrained in the foundation of the Joe Gibbs Racing and since joining the NASCAR Cup Series in 1992 the organization has collected five series championships among three drivers – Bobby Labonte (2000), Tony Stewart (2002, 2005) and Kyle Busch (2015, 2019).
Overall, Joe Gibbs Racing has 10 NASCAR national series owner championships (five in Cup and five in the NASCAR Xfinity Series – 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2016).
Joe Gibbs Racing has won five of the last 21 NASCAR Cup Series championships (2000-2020), putting the team’s title-winning percentage during that span at 25%. The organization also holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era (1972-Present) record for the most wins in a single season with 19 victories in 2019.
Heading into Phoenix this weekend, Joe Gibbs Racing has earned nine NASCAR Cup Series wins in 2021. The 2021 season is the organization’s 29th straight season with at least one victory in the NASCAR Cup Series.
This season Joe Gibbs Racing led a combined 2,792 laps. The team ranks second in laps led in a single season in the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era (1972-Presnt) with 4,047 laps out front in 2019. Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s recent dominance doesn’t end there, they also set a NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era record for the most finishes (32) inside the top two in 2019; a feat Hendrick Motorsports tied this season. This season the JGR foursome of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. scored 79 top-10 finishes; the team’s third-most (92 in 2019, 84 in 2016), posted 51 top-five finishes; the team’s third-most (61 in 2019 and 55 in 2020) and also won 22 stages.
Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs elimination-style format in 2014, Joe Gibbs Racing has placed at least one driver in the Championship 4 Round each season (Denny Hamlin: 2014, ’19, ’20, ’21; Kyle Busch: 2015-2019; Martin Truex Jr.: 2019, ’21; Carl Edwards: 2016). Impressively, Joe Gibbs Racing has placed more than one driver in the Championship 4 Round in three of the seven Playoffs with the elimination-format (2016, 2019 and 2021) and set the series record for the most drivers to earn a spot in the Championship 4 Round by an organization in a single season when Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin all made the Championship 4 in 2019.
Joe Gibbs Racing has won at least one Playoff race in 13 of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 33 postseason wins, second-most all-time. Joe Gibbs Racing is also tied with Hendrick Motorsports for the most Playoff wins in a single season with six victories each (JGR, 2019 and HMS 2007).
Martin Truex Jr. is looking to bring the Joe Gibbs Racing organization its sixth NASCAR Cup Series championship and his second becoming the fourth driver for JGR to win a title; joining Bobby Labonte (2000), Tony Stewart (2002 and 2005) and Kyle Busch (2015 and 2019).