RICHMOND, Va. — The frenzy that’s gripped the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture has been escalating for weeks as new winners have checked into Victory Lane. When Kevin Harvick raised that winner count to a lofty 15 last weekend at Michigan International Speedway, that frenzy went into fevered-pitch mode.
The premise that one spot in the already crowded 16-driver postseason grid would go to either Ryan Blaney or Martin Truex Jr. — both winless this year but in the top five of Cup Series points — has some worthwhile consideration. But Truex agrees that the possibilities are a bit more wide open, and that a new winner not named Blaney or Truex would flip up the script on those comparisons.
“I mean, it just depends on what happens, right? I mean, if we have a 16th winner, then the battle of points between him and I means nothing,” Truex told NASCAR.com. “So it’s all just circumstantial of what happens, and again, that’s what makes it tougher. You don’t know exactly what you have to do. Do you just throw caution to the wind and try to keep throwing Hail Marys and hope that something works out? Or do you just try to do what you’ve done all year, be consistent, score all the points you can throughout the day and get the best finish possible? I think at the end of the day, that makes the most sense. And that’s kind of the way we’re looking at it.”
Truex opened up on his postseason chances and his career outlook beyond this season in a wide-ranging conversation Friday, the day before on-track activity opened at Richmond Raceway. His playoff pursuit gets its next opportunity in Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (3 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) at the 0.75-mile Richmond oval, a track that has been friendly territory in recent years for him and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
Truex’s Richmond excellence has sprouted in a dominant stretch of seven consecutive top-five finishes there, with three victories for the No. 19 Toyota team sprinkled in that span. That recent run of success has been shared by Coach Joe Gibbs’ overall organization, which has nine wins in the last 13 Richmond races.
“At the end of the day, if you’re at the front, you’re doing the best thing you can do,” Truex says, noting that he’ll likely forgo in-race updates from the team on the progress of other playoff hopefuls. “So that’s our plan, and I feel good going to Richmond that we can be a little bit better than we were in the spring and hopefully be in position to go win that one. It’s been a great track. I love going there, and at this point in time, I feel like it’s one of the best places we could go to make this happen.”
When the Cup Series raced earlier this season at Richmond, it marked the debut of the Next Gen car at a track that small — the Los Angeles Coliseum’s Busch Light Clash exhibition excluded. Despite some initial concern that the new car model would mean a starting-over point for teams in building up notes and data at Richmond, JGR was able to find performance that was similar to its previous-generation success.
Teammate Denny Hamlin prevailed that day, and the three remaining Joe Gibbs Racing drivers all notched top-10 finishes. Truex’s tally included 80 laps led, a Stage 2 win and a fourth-place result.
“This car has been real difficult to try to take past history or to take, ‘OK, we’re always good here, right? How do we take what we know before with the other car and the way we approached it? How do we do that with the Next Gen car? What does that look like? Does it mean anything at all?'” Truex said. “And I think what we’ve seen is instances of where it’s helped a little bit at certain tracks, and Richmond is probably certainly one of them where our approach, kind of the way we approach that track seemed to translate slightly.
“But I mean, I’ll be honest, before we started the race there in the spring, I’m like, I have no idea how good we’re going to be. I thought we were pretty good in practice, but you just never know. So I think going back now, it’s another day race, which normally we’d have a day race, night race that makes it a little challenging for using your notes and all that. We’ll be able to use a little bit more of what we did in the spring, and hopefully we can just make the right tweaks from there of OK, what did we need to do better, and can we make those proper changes.”
While the playoff outlook is still not settled, Truex’s contract situation for 2023 is. The 42-year-old driver announced his return to the No. 19 Camry on June 24, ending weeks of speculation that he might step away from a full-time Cup Series career that stretches back to 2006.
Truex said that confirming his return was less about removing a personal burden than it was providing assurance for those close to him on the No. 19 group.
“I don’t know if it really was a relief, other than just, it’s always nice to know your plans,” Truex said. “I think mostly for the team, right? The team guys and all that just, they don’t have those questions of whether, what are they going to do next year, who are they working with and all that. So it’s always nice for them. I think, for me, it was easy to think about that for a couple days a week and then race and I didn’t really have any problem. I feel like I was doing my job the way I always do so. Mostly for the team, I’d say.”
As for where those career decisions go beyond next year, Truex hasn’t settled on a timetable there, either, but says he now has a better understanding of what the ramifications would be when that decision time arrives.
“It’s kind of like, when you make those decisions, you kind of just want to forget about it for a while, and I’m, I guess a procrastinator in general, so I like to put things off,” Truex says. “So I’ll probably be in the same boat next year, it’d be midseason and they’ll be asking me what am I doing, and I’ll be like, I gotta figure it out.
“So I think for me, the helpful thing was just, really throughout my career, I’d never thought about … I’ve never really took the time to think, you know, what does my career look like? How long am I going to do this? What do I need to understand to make the decision, you know, what is it gonna feel like to make that decision? So I think it was good just to talk to people and think about it for a while and kind of understand for the future, if nothing else, for when I do have to make the decision for real, or when I do actually say that I’m going to stop racing full time. So I think for that perspective, it was helpful, but it’s still going to be hard, you know, depending on circumstances. And I think for me, we still have a great team and I know we can win races and you know, if we can just get in the playoffs, I know we can go far. We just, we’ve got to get that win.”
Truex is still actively adding chapters to his Cup Series career, and it’s an impressive one even in its in-progress form. He has three national-series titles to his name — Cup in 2017 and the Xfinity Series crowns in 2004-05 — and his 31 Cup Series wins rank sixth among active drivers, placing him among some legendary company with NASCAR Hall of Fame bona fides on the all-time win list.
Truex says he hasn’t given much time to considering his Hall-worthy credentials or the sum of his NASCAR career as it rolls on, week to week. But he says he feels fortunate to have left a mark on the sport, one that carries on his family’s rich racing heritage.
“I’ve never really thought much about it. Times like that when you’re at the Hall of Fame, et cetera, it kind of hits you that, hey, there’s a chance of this happening,” Truex says. “I think for me, for my last name, for the Truex name in racing, all the years we’ve been racing, I think to be able to win a championship and win a lot of these big Cup races, I think has been probably one of the coolest things. For me, I don’t really get too caught up in what I’ve done and what it means to people, but having that Truex name up there is really special to me, and with all my dad’s put into racing throughout my career and his and all that.
“So definitely cool, and it’d be nice obviously, if we had a few of those championships that slipped out of our fingertips. A few of those seconds were tough to swallow, but at the end of the day, it’s been awesome. And I have to say that, going back to when I moved south to run in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series in ’04, I would have never thought that I could have done what I’ve done. So I’ve been blessed, been lucky to have great teams and work with a lot of great people. And I’m still doing that now, so I’m enjoying that part.”