MARTINSVILLE, VA — Martin Truex Jr. is stopping by a convenience story to pick up a lottery ticket on his way back home on Sunday night. The veteran driver has no clue how he’s still fighting for a championship next Sunday at Phoenix and hopes to cash in on his new found luck as a result.
If he was a cat, he’d have lived through all nine of his lives in 501 laps of racing at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway on Sunday afternoon with the Joe Gibbs Racing driver enduring late race contract, a possible tire rub, overheating issues as well as a loose wheel but still managed to finish fourth in his No. 19 Toyota to advance to his record tying fifth career Championship 4. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick also each have five but Truex has been in the final round in four of the last five years now with the only exception being a year ago.
Truex, entered Sunday’s race three points behind his JGR teammate of Kyle Busch for the fourth and final spot to advance to the final round. He did exactly what he had to do to put himself in a position to get by via 15 stage points. Busch, only had seven which had Truex in the transfer spot heading to the final stage.
He was in the top three for most of the day before having a potential loose wheel late in the race. He was laps away from pitting before Cole Custer spun in Turn 4 on Lap 357 which allowed him to pit with everyone else and not lose any ground in the process.
Then, in a rough and tumble final 50 laps, Truex had contract with several drivers and caused left front damage. He fell back. Busch was now rising and even found himself in the top five where Truex was struggling to remain in the top 10. He went from the plus side to below the cutline. With heavy damage now, it was looking like his championship hopes would be dashed.
“Yeah, I was really worried as soon as it first happened because I felt like the contact was very, very minimal,” Truex said. “I felt the tire pulling on the steering wheel, so I knew I had a tire rub. I obviously seen the smoke. I was really worried at that point.
“But ran two or three laps, the guys said it looks a lot better, it looks like it’s going to be fine. At that point your bed is kind of made. You have to stay out there and pray and hope that it doesn’t go flat. From there, we were just fighting, battling.
“Got run into. Got knocked out of the groove once, put in the wall once off of two just after that. Luckily we were able to have two good restarts at the end and get in the right lanes and make up some the spots.
“Definitely was worried, but luckily it held together there.”
Then came all that late race chaos which in turn allowed him to stay in the mix and with Truex climbing back up to finish fourth and Busch coming .472-seconds away from the win, he transfer to the final round and not Busch.
“Yeah, it’s never an easy situation to be kind of on your last run of the race, be in one minute and out the next,” he said of the ending. “You know there’s not a whole lot you can do other than drive.
“Like I said, fortunately we were able to gather ourselves up there and make a pass. We actually got in a good spot before the last two cautions came. I think we were in by one point or something at that point. Luckily just able to have two good restarts.
“I mean, those situations, that’s all you can do. Thinking about it, worrying about it doesn’t do you any good. You just got to try to go, hit your marks, get the most out of your race car. Luckily we were able to do that.
“The last two restarts were critical, but the last one for sure. The 18 was second. If he would have got to the 48, knocked him out of the way like he did the 11, Kyle’s in or out. Needed to try to stay close to the front there. Luckily we were able to start there on the second row and hang on to that spot, which was critical.
“I have no idea how we finished fourth (smiling). I’m going to buy a lottery ticket on the way home.”
Truex, now is likely the underdog next weekend in the sense that you get the top two drivers in the speed department all season via Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin as well as the defending series champion in Chase Elliott. That’s okay to him though because the last driver to actually win a race at Phoenix though?
Truex Jr. back in March.