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Martin Truex Jr.’s playoff pursuit finds friendly ground in Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. — The frenzy that gripped the NASCAR Cup Series playoff image intensified for weeks as new winners checked in to Victory Lane. When Kevin Harvick raised that number of winners to 15 last weekend at Michigan International Speedway, that frenzy went into fevered mode.

The speculation that a spot on the already crowded 16-driver post-season grid would go to Ryan Blaney or Martin Truex Jr. – both winless this year but in the top five in Cup Series points – deserves to be considered. But Truex agrees that the possibilities are a bit more open and that a new winner not named Blaney or Truex would flip the script on those comparisons.

“I mean, it just depends on what’s going on, doesn’t it?” I mean, if we have a 16th winner, then the points battle between him and me means nothing,” Truex told NASCAR.com. “So it’s all just circumstantial of what’s going on, and again that’s what makes it more difficult. 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 something works or are you just trying to do what you’ve been doing all year, be consistent, score all the points you you can throughout the day and get the best possible result? I think at the end of the day that’s what makes the most sense. And that’s kind of how we look at it .

Truex opened up about his post-season chances and career prospects beyond this season in a wide-ranging conversation on Friday, the day before on-track activity opens at Richmond Raceway. His playoff pursuit gets his next opportunity in Sunday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (3 p.m. ET, US, 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.

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Truex’s excellence at Richmond sprouted in a dominating streak of seven consecutive top-five finishes, with three wins for the No. 19 Toyota team dotted over that span. This recent streak of success has been shared by the entire organization of trainer Joe Gibbs, who have won nine in Richmond’s last 13 races.

“At the end of the day, if you’re ahead, you’re doing your best,” Truex says, noting 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 win that one. It’s been a great track. I love going there, and at this point I feel like it’s one of the best places we could go to for that to happen.

When the Cup Series raced earlier this season at Richmond, it marked the Next Gen car’s debut at such a small track – the Los Angeles Coliseum’s Busch Light Clash exhibit excluded. Despite some initial concern that the new car model would mean a starting point for teams in building up ratings and data at Richmond, JGR was able to find performance similar to its previous generation success.

His teammate Denny Hamlin won that day and Joe Gibbs Racing’s three remaining drivers all finished in the top 10. Truex’ tally included an 80-lap lead, a Stage 2 win and a fourth-place finish.

Logan Riely | Getty Images

“That car was very difficult trying to forget the history or taking, ‘OK, we’re still good here, aren’t we? How do we take what we knew 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 that mean anything at all?” Truex said. “And I think that what we’ve seen are instances where it helped a bit on certain tracks, and Richmond is probably certainly one of those where our approach, sort of the way we approach that track, seemed to translate slightly.

“But I mean, I’ll be honest, before I start racing there in the spring, I’m like, I have no idea how good we’re going to be. I thought we were pretty good at the training, but you never know. So I think coming back now, it’s another day race, where normally we would have a day race, a night race, which makes it a bit difficult to use your notes and all that. We can use a little more of what we did in the spring, and hopefully we can make the right adjustments from there, okay, what did we have to do better, and can we make those appropriate changes.

While playoff prospects are still unsettled, Truex’s contract situation for 2023 is. The 42-year-old driver announced his return to the #19 Camry on June 24, ending weeks of speculation that he may be walking away from a full-time Cup Series career that dates back to 2006.

Truex said confirming his return was less about removing a personal burden and more about providing reassurance to his loved ones in the No. 19 group.

“I don’t know if that was really a relief, other than just, it’s always nice to know your plans,” Truex said. “I think mostly for the team, right? The guys on the team and all that, they don’t have these 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 it a few days a week and then run and I didn’t really have a problem. I feel like I’m doing my job like I always do. Especially for the team, I would say.

As for where those career decisions will go beyond next year, Truex also didn’t set a timeline, but says he now has a better understanding of what the ramifications would be when that decision moment to arrive at.

“It’s kind of like when you’re making these decisions, you 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,” says Truex. “So I’ll probably be in the same boat next year, it would be halfway through the season and they’ll ask me what I’m doing, and I’ll say, I have to figure it out.

“So I think for me the useful thing was just, really throughout my career, I never thought about it…I never really took the time to think about, you know, what it’s like my career? How long am I going to do this? What do I need to understand to make the decision, you know, what’s it going to be like to make this decision? So I think it was good to talk to people and think about it for a while and understand for the future, if nothing else, for when I have to make the decision for real, or when I actually say I’m going stop racing full time. So I think for that perspective it was helpful, but it’s always going to be tough, you know, depending on the circumstances. And I think for me, we still have a great team and I know that we can win races and you know, if we can just make the playoffs, I know we can go far. We just gotta, we gotta get that win.

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Truex is still actively adding chapters to his Cup Series career, and that’s impressive even in his current 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 victories rank him sixth among active drivers, placing him among a legendary company with NASCAR Hall of Fame in good faith. the list of all-time wins.

Truex says he hasn’t spent much time reviewing his Hall-worthy credentials or summing up his NASCAR career as it unfolds, week after week. But he says he feels lucky to have left a mark on the sport, one that continues his family’s rich racing heritage.

“I never really thought about it. Moments like that, when you’re in the Hall of Fame, et cetera, it kind of hits you, hey, there’s a chance of that happening,” Truex says. “I think for me, for my last name, for the name Truex in racing, all the years that we raced, I think being able to win a championship and win a lot of these big Cup races, I think that was probably one of the coolest things. For me, I’m not really too caught up in what I’ve done and what it means to people, but having that Truex name out there is really special to me, and with everything my dad put in racing throughout my career and his and all that.

“So really cool, and it would be obviously, if we had a couple of those championships slipping away from our fingertips. A few of those seconds were hard to swallow, but at the end of the day, it was been awesome. And I have to say, ever since I moved down south to race in the Busch (now Xfinity) series in 2004, I never thought I could have done what I did. So I was blessed, I was lucky to have great teams and work with a lot of great people and I still do that now, so I appreciate that part.

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