CHARLOTTE, N.C. — How far the playoff pendulum can swing. Martin Truex Jr. was just three points shy of qualifying for the postseason field in 2022, weathering a winless regular season that turned into a yearlong dry spell. He ended the campaign as a playoff outsider for the first time in seven years, and the sour feeling stuck with him and his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota team.
The efforts to avoid a repeat of that non-playoff sting began the moment the clock struck offseason, just after last year’s season finale.
“100%. The day after Phoenix last year, it was like, ‘All right, we’re getting to work,’ “Truex said Thursday during Cup Series Playoffs Media Day. “It really lit a fire under everybody to just show how bad they wanted it and go to work on it. I think our whole group across the board really, right after Phoenix, got to work on things, and it definitely was a big inspiration for us this year.”
Motivated and at the top of the Cup Series heap, Truex enters this year’s NASCAR Playoffs as the circuit’s regular-season champion and as one of the favorites for the overall title. He shares the top spot in the standings with William Byron, the series’ leading winner so far and the No. 1 seed for the 10 races that will settle the Cup Series crown.
The two drivers are separated by 18 years in age, but zero points after the standings were reset following the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. The playoff journey will begin for Truex, Byron and the rest of the title-eligible contenders starting with Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) at historic Darlington Raceway.
Truex’s turnaround has been among the most dramatic this year. After opening the season with a victory in the Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum, the 43-year-old veteran has since rattled off three more triumphs and held the lead in the Cup Series standings virtually all summer.
Truex said that last year’s downfall was chalked up in part to the team’s gambles and experimentation with trying to figure out the Next Gen race car in its first season of Cup Series competition. Those experiences, he said, helped the No. 19 team achieve a better grasp of the car’s characteristics this season. So far, the results have shown, providing Truex with a modest safety net of bonus points for his postseason trek and a quest for a second Cup Series title, his first since 2017.
“I feel as good as I ever have going into the playoffs,” said Truex, who leads the Cup Series in average finish (11.2). “It’s been a really strong year for us, consistently up at the front and doing what we need to do. Certainly, let a few wins slip away, which is always disappointing, but to have three and the Clash win is a pretty good regular season, so you just have to keep putting yourself in the right position.”
Byron has been every bit the measure of Truex in several performance metrics this year, entering the final 10 races as a worthy title co-favorite. The 25-year-old driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has led the most laps (877) in the regular season, and his five wins are two more than his nearest competitors — Truex, Chris Buescher and Kyle Busch. The only slight lag behind Truex’s numbers is in consistency — Byron went five races without a top-10 finish during a subdued stretch this summer but then snapped that confounding streak in style with a convincing win at Watkins Glen International two weeks ago.
Byron said that the five victories exceeded his team’s own expectations (“Winning three races was kind of the goal,” he said) but that he hasn’t felt additional pressure to carry this banner season to the Championship 4 round. He’s seeking his first appearance in the Cup Series’ final four in this, his fifth consecutive playoffs appearance.
“I don’t think we change a thing. The intensity of the moment already elevates your performance a little bit,” Byron said. “I know we’re good enough, I know we’re capable. I know my best is good enough. I feel like, for me, it’s more the same. … It’s trying to approach each track individually and not look too far ahead. That’s really the thing I’ve learned, not to get ahead of ourselves.”