AVONDALE, AZ — Martin Truex Jr. was the one entering Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season finale with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Kyle Larson was the heavy favorite after having won nine times during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season including four of which occurring during this year’s postseason. In fact, he’d won three of the last four races in general. Larson, entered with 18 top five finishes, 24 top 10’s and 2,474 laps led in 35 races.
Denny Hamlin was the next one up. He’d been the second best driver this season. Hamlin, had 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’d won six of the nine playoff races, 10 of the 18 stages this postseason and led 56% of the laps. Wasn’t this their race title to lose?
Chase Elliott was the defending Cup champion and won this very race last year. He entered 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. was battling against them for the title at the Phoenix Raceway with nothing to lose and having a pocket full of house money. That’s why they made the call to pit when they did on what they thought was the final stint.
Last year, we went the entire final stage from green to checkered without a caution. With Truex being a distant fourth among the four coming to what was planned to be the final stop of the day, they had to do something different.
So, they pit first.
“It was too early,” Truex said of the decision to pit when they did. “You know at some point you’re probably going to get a caution. Lap car, back marker is probably going to crash into the wall for no reason or something stupid like it always happens. So I’m not sure what happened, but that’s probably what happened.”
It worked in their favor. He caught a caution while on pit road for Anthony Alfredo crashing in Turn 2 which was the mulligan that they needed.
Truex, would now go from fourth to first and back in prime position to capitalize. Unfortunately, another caution came out while Truex was leading and when going head-to-head against everyone else for the final stop, he exited third. He’d get by Denny Hamlin for second but didn’t have enough to catch and pass Larson for the win.
He’d led the fourth most laps all season (865) and while his 13 top fives and 20 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 heading into the weekend. In fact, Truex now has six top six finishes in his last nine Phoenix starts.
He also had three wins on short tracks this season via victories at Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond. Unfortunately, he just didn’t have enough in the end to take home his second championship in the last five years.
“Yeah, I mean, for us we had just a solid day,” Truex said. “We hung around right there where we needed to be, had a really good car, especially on the long runs early in the race. Track position was tough. Seemed like whoever was out front could drive away for 30, 40 laps and then you’d kind of race from there on until the end of the run.
“It seemed like we were pretty good.
“Felt like all of us were really equally matched, honestly. We were all really good, really fast. Whoever got out front seemed to be good on the short run, and then long run it was kind of back and forth between everybody all day it seemed like.
“So we did everything we needed to. We got a lucky break there with the caution when we pitted and got us the lead, and we were driving off into the sunset. I don’t know what the caution was for, but just untimely caution for us and lost two spots on pit road and that was the race. 20 to go, you’re not going to pass one of the fastest cars out there. We just didn’t have the short run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 to go it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air.
“I think if we would have had the lead, we could have held him off. But hindsight is 20/20, and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are. Really proud of our team and our season. Come in here once again as underdogs and had a shot at it, so that was fun.”
Still, it was a miraculous feat to make it to the Championship 4 after a rough postseason prior. He nearly didn’t get by to the final round in Martinsville and had finishes of 12th, 29th, 25th and seventh in the four races prior. Despite that, he nearly became just the 17th driver who could say that they’ve won multiple championships in NASCAR’s premiere series.
He was that close after a season that saw him back his way into the playoffs with three top fives in his last 14 starts of the regular season.
Still, this was his record tying fifth Championship 4 and something he can hang his hat on at the end of the day.
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 and Busch is the only one to win multiple championships in this time frame.
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 and has 31 wins to his credit.
He will be back for more in hopes of making one last run for a second title.
But, his rise to the top hasn’t been easy.
He finished 19th in the final standings as a rookie in 2006. Then, he made the playoffs in his second season, a year in which he earned his first victory in NASCAR’s premiere series. He did so at what is considered his home track of Dover. See, Truex grew up in New Jersey and one of the closer race tracks to his homestate is the one at Dover.
Fitting, he earned his first win there. But, Truex had some lean years following that which left him switching teams to Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2010 season.
With DEI and then Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Truex had one win, 13 top five finishes, 37 top 10’s, four poles and 861 laps led.
Unfortunately, MWR wasn’t much of a high point either. In his four year span with them, Truex earned one win, 18 top five finishes, 53 top 10’s, three poles and 1,028 laps led. Plus, the way his tenure with MWR ended started a bizarre story that leads to where Truex is today.
See, Truex was starting to find his stride a bit with MWR in 2013. He won at Sonoma that year and finished with seven top five’s which tied for the most he’s ever had in a single season, 15 top 10’s (2nd most) and a 15.1 average finishing spot, again second most. His 12.1 average finishing spot in 2012 was the best he’s ever had.
Then, the cheating scandal happened which rocked NASCAR and forced Truex out of a ride and MWR to shut their doors for good.
In the final regular season race at Richmond, Truex was close to making the playoffs on points. It was between him and Jeff Gordon for that final spot. MWR had Clint Bowyer, Truex’s teammate, purposely spin in the closing laps of the race to bring out a caution. It helped Truex dramatically and he, not Gordon, took the final spot.
But, NASCAR later ruled that the whole situation was sketchy and penalized MWR/Bowyer for a cheating scandal. The fall out though took Truex out of the playoffs and Gordon in as his replacement. In turn, NAPA who was Truex’s sponsor at the time with MWR was irate and wanted to move away from MWR. Nothing against Truex, as he wasn’t involved in this, but NAPA wanted out.
So, without a sponsor and a huge fine to MWR, Truex’s ride was gone. He had no part in the cheating but he was let go due to funding the the fallout not of his doing.
Truex, with two wins, 33 top five finishes, 90 top 10’s, seven poles and 1,889 laps led was left searching for a new ride. Those stats weren’t glaring to merit a top ride, so where would he go?
With Kurt Busch departing Furniture Row Racing, that was the best available. They, like Truex, had similar stats and paths through the 2013 season – one win, 13 top five finishes, 27 top 10’s, one pole and 496 laps led read their career NASCAR stats.
Truex, was starting to find his groove in 2012 and again in 2013 while FRR was too. 448 of their 496 laps led for FRR happened in that 2013 season. 12 of the top fives and 19 of the top 10’s occurred over the last two years too.
So, for 2014, it was Truex and FRR teaming up. Then, came the news that his long time girlfriend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Another big blow to him.
2014 was rough for his personal life and on track experience. No wins, one top five finish, five top 10’s, one lap led and his girlfriend going through a battle with cancer. It was a year that really tested him.
His strength and character really showed up in 2015 in a big way. It was the start of a crazy turnaround.
Truex, won at Pocono, had a career high in eight top five finishes and 22 top 10’s to go along with 567 laps led. He marched all the way to the Championship 4 with the little team that could. That in turn led FRR to find an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and a manufacturer switch from Chevrolet to Toyota and turned Truex’s life around for the better.
In 2016 alone, Truex had four wins, eight top five finishes, 17 top 10’s, five poles and 1,809 laps led. Prior to that, he had three wins, eight poles and 2,457 laps led combined.
The next year was even better. Truex, won the championship on a season that saw him reach victory lane eight times, score 19 top five finishes, 26 top 10s, three poles and 2,253 laps led.
All the past heartbreaks for Truex was erased. They were just scars to remind him the hard road to the top. Now, he has emerged as the top driver in NASCAR today.
Then, came another roadblock. FRR had no money to continue on past 2018. Despite a championship in 2017, 2018 would be their final year in NASCAR. Still, Truex managed to fight his way to the final round yet again. He did so with four wins, 20 top fives, 21 top 10’s, four poles and 1,016 laps led.
Remember those stats heading to FRR? Those two wins, 33 top five finishes, 90 top 10’s, seven poles and 1,889 laps led? Well, with FRR, he had 17 wins, 56 top five finishes, 91 top 10’s, 12 poles and 5,646 laps led. He did so in 117 less starts.
Now, he was a free agent AGAIN. I mean, how? How could a driver of this caliber be a free agent?
But, his stats now heading to free agency were a lot different than they were in 2013. That led him to go not too far from home – Joe Gibbs Racing. Toyota wasn’t going to let him get away.
In year No. 1 with JGR, Truex was back into the Championship 4 as that then was his fourth trip in the last five years. He had seven more wins, 14 top fives, 21 top 10’s and 1,268 laps led heading to the final round that year but he failed to win the title.
After a down season with a new crew chief in 2020, he was back where he belonged in 2021.
Out of his 31 career wins but 29 of them have come since 2015. Now, he’s got to be in the conversation as a Hall of Fame lock. It wasn’t a career that looked like it was going that way prior to 2015, but it sure does now.