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Dr. Diandra: Will Martin Truex Jr.’s playoff bubble burst?

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One new playoff-eligible winner in the next four races of the Cup Series will provoke a showdown between Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney for last place in the playoffs – unless that winner is Truex or Blaney.

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Since 2018, there has been at least one new winner in the last four races of the regular season each year.

History of Truex

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Truex made his first race in the Cup Series in 2004 at the age of 24. He earned his first points race win with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2007 in Dover. His second victory came seven years later with Michael Waltrip Racing. Then Spingate cost him a sponsor, and he ended up at Mebel Row Racing.

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Three years later, Truex won the championship, only for Furniture Row to announce it would close after the 2018 season. Truex has been with Joe Gibbs Racing since 2019 and announced in June that he would remain with the team for the 2023 season.

This story is meant to help you understand the ups and downs of Truex’s career chart. A man literally had to start over more than once.

In 607 races, the 42-year-old has 31 wins, 132 top-five finishes and 257 top-10 finishes. This is 5.1% of wins, 21.7% of hits in the top 5 and 42.3% of hits in the top 10.

Truex in 2022

The Next Gen car challenged everyone, but Toyota more than most. With just six cars, Toyota collects a third of the data that Ford and Chevy collect. Limited practice time forces teams to rely heavily on simulations. Less data means Toyota takes longer to test its models than other manufacturers.

The annual Truex chart reflects this issue.

Scatter plot (top) and vertical bar chart (bottom) showing Martin Truex Jr.'s 2022 Race 22 rankings and finishes.

At the same time last year, Truex secured a playoff spot with three wins. He had seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10 finishes. Truex has yet to win this year and only has three top-five finishes. He did not finish better than fourth.

Truex’s biggest achievement is seven stage wins, more than anyone else in the Cup Series and two more than Ryan Blaney. Those seven stage victories came from just four tracks. He won stage 1 and stage 2 at Dayton, Nashville and the second race at Atlanta but finished 22nd, 13th and 11th.

Other strengths of Truex include:

  • He is first in lead lap percentage with 94.57%.
  • Truex completed 6.6% of the fastest laps this year, finishing third with Ross Chastain. However, this is a narrow category: Kyle Bush as well as Chase Elliott share the lead with 7.2% of the fastest laps each.
  • Truex’s average finishing position of 13.63 places him fourth among all drivers and first among Toyota teams. Chase Elliot takes first place overall with an average of 10.32. As shown in the chart below, Blaney is only slightly behind Truex with an average of 13.72.

Scatter plot comparing average Toyota driver results with Elliott (first place) and Blaney.

Truex is fifth in laps and seventh in speed with a green flag.

The two DNF Truex were due to accidents, not equipment failure. Not only finishing two races is an achievement in a season that has had 141 DNFs so far. Last year, after 22 races, there were only 97 DNFs. This year’s total is the highest so far in a season since 2014, when there were 150 DNFs.

No. 19 has been involved in six crashes and one rotation, which is a low number this season. However, NASCAR only records incidents that trigger warnings. An accident on lap 80 at Indy Road destroyed the Truex finish there, although this is not reflected in the official totals.

How to beat Blaine

Blaney was 71 points ahead of Truex to leave New Hampshire, but Truex reduced that lead to 25 points. Three areas stand out as places where Truex can improve performance to win or at least close the points gap.

Truex is ranked 15th in relaunches and Blaney is eighth. On difficult circuits, getting into position at restarts can be a huge advantage.

The top four restarters drive Chevy: Kyle LarsonChase Elliott, Ross Chastain, etc. William Byron. Christopher Bell, in fifth place, Toyota ranks first in restarts. Truex ranks fourth among four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in this metric.

As you might have guessed, given Truex’s race finishes where he won both stage 1 and stage 2, closures remain a problem. The “closest” statistic measures how many positions a rider gains or loses in the last 10 percent of a race.

After Indy, only four riders were below Blaney, but one of them is Truex.

Truex has lost 44 positions in the last 10 percent of races this year, including 18 positions in Nashville (where he won both rounds) and 13 positions in Sonoma. He only hits Eric Jones (-57 positions), William Byron (-52) and Joey Logano (-47) in closing ability.

Blaney is down 43 positions, so even a small win can make a big difference in the Truex vs. Blaney competition.

There is some validity to the argument that closers’ statistics are largely down to luck; however, if it were only luck, the gains and losses of the position would be more evenly distributed. Some drivers seem to be better at avoiding problems on the track or overcoming them.

The third area where Truex could improve is qualifications. Truex has the lowest average starting position of any JGR driver. This is especially important considering that Ryan Blaney has the best middle position in qualifying.

The scatter chart comparing the averages of Toyota drivers starts with Elliott (first place) and Blaney.

Future

Truex’s outlook for Michigan is mixed. His average is 13.7 over 31 races, 11th among active riders. He has 10 fives and 14 top 10s.

If we only look at recent history, Truex has finished in the top 5 in four of the last five races in Michigan, giving it a 4.6 average. In addition, this year he finished 13th at Fontana and seventh at Pocono.

But Truex never won in Michigan. In fact, Toyota only has one win at Michigan in the last 19 races, while Fords have won the last seven.

And Ryan Blaney won the last race in Michigan.

The worst case scenario for Truex and Blaney is a win for Kevin Harvick, who would then jump them both to the playoffs and leave only one position open. Although Harvick has not won since September 2020, he has won four of his last six races at Michigan.

On a positive note for the two losing riders, no one has taken their first win of the season at Michigan since 2016, when Kyle Larson took his first career win in the Cup Series.

The last two races in the regular season are road and super speedway. Considering Toyota’s difficulties in road racing this year, a win at Watkins Glen is a real possibility. Truex has the second highest number of points earned at super fast tracks in 2022; however, in Daytona, a lot is out of the driver’s control. The risk of crashing will be even higher than usual, given that this will be the last chance for the losing riders to qualify for the playoffs.

Truex’s best chance of winning is Richmond, the penultimate race of the regular season. He finished fourth there in April and is a teammate Denny Hamlin won. A win at Richmond would allow Truex to enter the final two races of the season, focusing on stage points rather than worrying about whether he would make the playoffs at all.



Source: nascar.nbcsports.com

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