RICHMOND, Va. – Martin Truex Jr.’s hopes for a playoff-clinching victory at a track that’s been a strong suit opened with promise – based on his favorable history, his strength in practice and qualifying, and a prime starting spot for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series at Richmond Raceway.
Some 24 hours later, the Saturday speed from the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota didn’t translate to Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400. Truex rallied from a lap down to claim seventh place at the end, but lost ground to the 10th-place finisher Ryan Blaney in their contest for the final slot on the postseason grid.
With stage points on his side, Blaney padded his advantage as the last driver provisionally in the 16-driver playoff field. Truex dipped from a 19-point deficit relative to the postseason cutline to a 26-point gap behind Blaney’s bubble spot with two regular-season races remaining.
“Honestly, it was nothing like yesterday. I don’t know. We’re kind of at a loss right now thinking about why,” said Truex, who was fifth in practice and sixth in qualifying. “At the end of the day, just not good enough. Really battled hard and made a lot of great adjustments. I mean, Stage 2 there, I thought we were going to finish 20th at best, you know what I mean. It was pretty bad, but kept working on it and got better and ended up with a decent finish, just not what we needed to do here.”
Truex faded through the running order early on, clinging to 10th place at the end of Stage 1 on Lap 70. The second stage was more of a challenge. Some slight contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s No. 47 Chevrolet at pit entry gave the team a scare, and Truex lost a lap in a mid-stage pit-stop cycle. He unlapped himself on Lap 221, just before the second intermission.
When asked what Truex needed, crew chief James Small quipped: “A better handling race car. We just started off way tighter than we thought. There’s no reason why we should have been tight. I have no (expletive) idea. But yeah, just got behind and worked on it. You know, he drove his (expletive) off all day and got back on the lead lap all by himself. We made it better at the end, it just wasn’t good enough. We just … we were average, and we needed to be exceptional today.”
That especially stung at Richmond, where Truex entered the weekend as a pre-race favorite with a string of seven consecutive top-five results.
“Of course. We come here every time expecting to win, every year since 2017, 2016, we’ve been really good here,” Small said. ” And today, it was probably the most mediocre performance we’ve had at Richmond in a long time. So yeah, it just is what it is, and we move on.”
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Blaney, meanwhile, finished where he started in 10th, but placing sixth and fifth at the stage junctures helped the No. 12 Team Penske driver hold the line and make a slight gain in the playoff picture.
“Obviously, a couple things worked in our favor,” said Jonathan Hassler, No. 12 crew chief. “We got a repeat winner; we made a few points on it. So obviously, not the result that we wanted, but certainly could be a lot worse.”
The quest for the final playoff spot turns the page to its final two weeks, with races next Sunday at Watkins Glen International and then the regular-season finale at Daytona on Aug. 27. With Richmond’s mystery chapter in the books, Truex says the approach for the next two events will keep the same outlook.
“The same. You just go out and fight, man,” Truex said. “You go give it all you got. There’s no magic triggers. Just go trying to figure it out and work hard and race hard and see what we can come up with.”