Martin Truex Jr., crew chief James Small and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team have one more chance to turn their postseason around.
“It’s just been a very weird playoffs,” Small said Thursday. “It feels very much like the stuff we went through last year — you name it, something went wrong. But we’re still in it with a shot, and that’s how we get up every day. We’re not out of it, so we’ll keep fighting all the way until the last lap Sunday.”
Truex, the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season champion, is 17 points below the cutline with Martinsville Speedway ahead (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBC). An engine failure at Homestead-Miami Speedway has pushed Truex to the brink of elimination after he was penciled in as a title favorite.
In the regular season, Truex earned three victories and had an average finish of 11.4. It’s been the 36 playoff points, however, that have carried Truex through the rounds as the finishes have lacked. In eight postseason races, Truex has an average finish of 20.8 with one top-15 finish.
“I would never have thought ending the regular season that us and [Denny Hamlin] would be sitting here tied on points below the cutline going into Martinsville,” Small said. “We both had great years and we’ve had ultimately — on average — I feel like the fastest cars every week when you average it out across the season. But it’s just the playoffs, everything kind of went sideways.
“We struggled on pit road. We didn’t have clean races. Martin’s made mistakes; I made mistakes. And then you have the random stuff that’s happened. It’s frustrating, but thankfully we’ve got to reset every round. I thought if we could get to the Round of 8, we’d have really good cars and we’ve had cars that could easily run in the top three the last couple of weeks, and stuff hasn’t played out.
“The engine failure over the weekend really, really hurt us because, given the day we had and the pit stop issues and the untimely caution, I still think we could have got back to within the top five. And the whole points scenario would be completely different.”
While the points math can still play out for Truex, Small is looking at this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway as a must-win scenario. Motorsport Images
Despite the situation, it’s been business as usual for Small and his team this week. A normal week means long hours at the race shop (he and engineer Jeff Curtis were still there at 1:30am Thursday) and very little sleep.
“I’ll save all that up for the offseason,” Small. “We’ve put a lot of effort in. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of data from the wheel force test last week on the new tire, and we didn’t get all of stuff kind of buttoned up until Monday. So, it’s been quite busy the last couple of days just trying to filter through all that and do all the sim work and make sure we have everything in the right spot.”
It’s mathematically possible for Truex to erase a 17-point deficit. Truex will have to leapfrog Hamlin, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney. The final transfer spot is held by Blaney. However, Small said Martinsville feels more like a must win.
“I feel like we just have to go and win,” Small said. “There’s really only one option. There’s not too much stress about it, so it’s just like, what can we do to go and put ourselves in the best position to win? I think it’ll be actually more stressful if you were on a points kind of scenario. But for us, unless something goes kind of sideways for the 12 [Blaney] and the 24 [William Byron], I don’t think we have any other options but to win.”
“Obviously, we’ll have a better idea after qualifying and after the first stage, but we’ve seen the points flip pretty easily at some of the other races, so we’ll have to wait and see. But yeah, I feel like it’ll be us and Denny vying it out for the win…I hope.”