AVONDALE, Ariz. — Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin may have entered Sunday’s championship race as underdogs. So said Wally Brown, the team’s competition director, in the week’s run-up to the NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Cinderellas or not, Truex and Hamlin chased the No. 5 Chevrolet of eventual champion Kyle Larson down the stretch before coming up short in Sunday’s season-ender. Their Toyotas held the advantage in long-haul speed in a race that threw two short runs at them late, playing into the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Larson and Chase Elliott.
That factor, plus a slight performance deficit on pit road at the end, left Truex second in his bid for a second Cup Series title and Hamlin third in his long-running quest for a first.
“That’s racing, as they say, and sometimes you’re just not on the right end of things,” said Truex, who led 72 laps but ended up .398 seconds behind at the checkered flag. “We were on the right end of things to get the lead there and weren’t able to hold onto it. If we could have had the lead, I think it would have been over, but that’s kind of how the 5 did it, too. So they had a hell of a season and congrats to them. Gosh, second sucks. I hate it.”
Truex nearly benefitted from a decision by crew chief James Small to be the first Championship 4 contender to make their final scheduled pit stop, forcing the other title hopefuls to follow suit. When the caution flag flew for Anthony Alfredo’s hard hit with 66 laps remaining, Truex was already committed to pit road and after the No. 19 team’s stop, he left with the lead
Truex held serve up front for the next 33 laps before another yellow flag for debris prompted a final round of stops. The No. 5 crew vaulted Larson to the lead with speedy service, while Truex slipped to third for the final restart — which shifted to Hendrick’s favor with just a 24-lap run to the end.
“It wasn’t what we needed,” said Small, who described the team’s over-the-wall performance as “a little bit messy” on Sunday. “I think if it went green there, we would’ve just kept pulling away there. We had a great fight there with the 11. They had a strong car as well. Yeah, we just struggled just a little bit on pit road all day, to be honest, compared to the Hendrick cars. That 5 car crew’s been strong all year and that really won them the race. Martin did a great job on that last restart to get into second and he gave a hell of a fight.”
The title-eligible drivers ran in 1-2-3-4 formation for significant portions of Sunday’s 312-miler, but Hamlin was the only one of the four that didn’t lead a lap. The prospects of a caution-free stint to the end would have aided the No. 11 team’s hopes, but Hamlin still lined up alongside friendly rival Larson on the front row for the final restart.
“You and your buddy on the front row may not be buddies after this,” No. 11 crew chief Chris Gabehart told Hamlin before the final green flag. “Go get this.” But Larson pulled away to a lead that he wouldn’t give up, leaving Hamlin’s title cupboard empty in his third consecutive Championship 4 appearance.
“I have to live with the result because I can’t change it,” Hamlin said. “Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew kind of going into today I was going to need the race to go a certain way. If it goes the way it did last year, it goes green out, we’re probably winning. But it didn’t. We knew that our percentage was low, and that was the case. Many of these races come down to green-white-checkers or shootouts at the end, and that just wasn’t our strength and hasn’t been ever.”
Said Gabehart: “The short-run speed of the 5 and the 9 were evident on Friday and yesterday, but it became evident in the race that they were going to taper off enough to make us easily able to contend or be better than them. Certainly once we worked on our cars and it cooled off a bit, they really weren’t in the game as much any more. But it comes down to cautions and circumstances and that caution wasn’t what we needed. You put Kyle Larson out front with a bit in his mouth and kind of hand him that advantage, he’s going to be hard to beat and that’s what it was.”