Martin Truex Jr. felt he had a car to go to battle Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, but a speeding penalty was the dagger in his NASCAR Cup Series postseason.
NASCAR nabbed Truex for speeding under the lap 261 caution. He had come off pit road second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin but was forced deep into the field. He never recovered and finished 12th.
Truex needed to win the race to advance. The final margin was a 28-point deficit to the Cup Series playoff grid cutline.
“It’s completely different,” Truex said of his race after the penalty. “If we couldn’t find a way to flip track position pit stop-wise, we were never going to get there. Our car was good. The field is so tight, so close. Your car drives so much worse in traffic. I felt like we did really good to get back to where we did. You just burn the tires off so much worse back there in the hot, dirty track, dirty air. You’re in more rubber.”
The penalty was the turning point for Truex, who started from the pole and led 47 laps. He had a top-three car in the first stage, and the penalty came in the second stage, which took him out of contention for points.
“It’s just a dogfight,” Truex said. “I don’t know. We gave it a hell of an effort. I felt like we had a really strong car. I don’t think we could have beat [Ryan Blaney]. He was really, really strong. We were definitely close. Something to work on for next time.
“Really disappointed. I mean, I thought I was well under speed leaving that box. Clearly we were speeding, so we have something to look at there. It’s devastating. That’s racing.”
Truex won the regular-season championship and entered the postseason with three victories and 36 playoff points. The bonus points are what carried the No. 19 team through the first two rounds since their average finish was 21.3.
Not until Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the seventh race of the postseason and the first in the Round of 8, did Truex score a top-15 finish. An engine failure a week later at Homestead-Miami Speedway finally pushed him too far behind going into an elimination race.
“Man, I think it just shows how tough this sport is,” Truex said. “Anybody that races here and guys that have raced here that do the broadcasts, they’ll tell you, it’s this close, man. You find this little bit and suddenly you look like a hero. Some other guys find some stuff, suddenly you’re not. We’ve been fast at times, but execution hasn’t been solid, hasn’t been consistent. We’ve had some bad luck. We’ve had a little bit of everything.
“Like I said, some years it feels like it’s your year, some years it feels like it’s not. I just feel we couldn’t do anything right. If it was ever a 50/50 call, it always went against us. A blown engine, a flat tire, you name it — problem after problem. Just kept setting us back, and we couldn’t get no momentum. I think we did a great job today. It was a tiny little error, 0.2mph can ruin your whole year, unfortunately.”