One spot short of win in Texas, Martin Truex now finds himself in a must-win situation for playoff survival at Martinsville Speedway, a track on which he's claimed the last two victories, and where he’s a NASCAR betting favorite this Sunday. His biggest adversary might be the very driver who recently defeated him.
Quick recap: Busch, Truex carry Joe Gibbs racing to 1-2 finish at Texas
If NASCAR more closely resembled Formula 1, with team orders intact, Kyle Busch might’ve allowed fellow Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex, championship eligible, one additional spot on the racetrack on Wednesday night at Texas Motor Speedway. Instead, Busch kept Truex at bay, protecting first place while also conserving fuel on a long run that ended a 500-mile contest delayed three days by inclement weather. It was Busch’s first win since November, 2019.
Busch’s car ranked as the fifth fastest in the race and fourth in the fourth quarter specifically, speaking further towards the driver’s ability to remain out front, in clean air, while not leaning too heavily on the throttle in a 550-hp race begging for the gas to be mashed. The 2019 champion, Busch was knocked out of the playoffs three weeks ago, a result of a winless season filled with good underlying numbers but empty on tangible results. He’d gone winless prior to Wednesday night, when his performance was quintessentially him – he’s now a 57-race winner in NASCAR’s premier series.
Truex is Martinsville’s master and he’s in a must-win situation
Outside of Truex, Busch’s win left a few other championship-eligible drivers in the lurch, with three drivers, Truex included, separated by over 20 points from the playoff cut line, meaning this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway acts a must-win situation for each.
But Truex is the most recent winner at the Virginia half-mile track, triumphant there four months ago in a race that ended following a caution-less final 48 miles, the longest green-flag run to end a race in Martinsville since March, 2018.
“Martinsville can be a wild, crazy race depending on how the cautions fall, especially at the end of the race,” Truex said during a media availability last week. “You take it one stage at a time and try to put yourself in the best position possible throughout that race, no matter where it is at.”
The flat half-mile oval elicits contact via close-proximity racing, but a second half that’s relatively uneventful suits Truex’s style. In 2020, he’s averaging a 9.38-place finish in races without a late-race restart, compared to his 18.38-place average in races with at least one restart in the final one-tenth of the event. Regardless of how the race breaks, he’ll have speed – Truex’s No. 19 Toyota ranks as the third-fastest car on 750-hp tracks this season, trailing only the cars of Chase Elliott and Joey Logano.
He’ll need that speed for the win, his best chance at nullifying a penalty last week for an altered rear spoiler at Texas that trimmed 20 points off his total for this playoff round. He ranks as the ninth-most efficient passer on the type of track, and delivered his most prolific passing performance of the season in his win at Martinsville this spring, an adjusted pass differential of plus-18 positions, yielding a race-best surplus passing value of plus -14.87 percent.
There is a litany of contenders with strong statistical profiles
Truex won’t be without heavy competition for the outright win at Martinsville and again, his JGR stable mate Busch could prove an adversary.
With just one win to his name in 2020, Busch’s statistical profile this season on the 750-hp tracks shines: He ranks first in surplus passing value and sixth in speed and had a run of eight consecutive top-5 finishes at Martinsville from 2015 through 2019. No longer championship eligible, every result worse than first is inconsequential. He’ll go for broke.
Expect a similar attack from the drivers with the fastest speed on this track type. Logano, who’s already clinched a spot in next weekend’s championship race, averaged a race-best 2.08-place average running position in the Martinsville tilt earlier this year. Elliott’s 5.02-place spot ranked as the second-best mark and, unlike Logano, he’s a plus passer on 750-hp tracks, ranked seventh in surplus value, and is hovering on the cut line for playoff advancement.
This is equally a must-win situation for Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch who, like Truex, are well below the playoff cutoff. Given their respective statistical profiles, such a score appears a stretch.
Bowman finished sixth in Martinsville last spring, but he had the ninth-fastest car in the race and the 15th-fastest car this season on 750-hp tracks, speed that is essentially good enough, but not to the point of being optimistic about his chances. Crew chief Greg Ives has displayed a predilection for two-tire and no-tire pit stops as options for digging out of track position holes, and successive caution flags early in Sunday’s race may allow Ives a chance to test his favored theory.
Likewise, Busch’s Chip Ganassi Racing car ranks 13th in speed on 750-hp tracks this season and his minus-3.5 percent surplus passing value ranks as the worst among drivers averaging a top-30 running position. His lone win of the season came at Las Vegas when crew chief Matt McCall long-pitted during the final stage; green-flag pit cycles won’t be plentiful this weekend, but any shot at the necessary win will require a commensurate deployment of risk. At the very least, we have evidence that McCall isn’t risk averse.
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David Smith is a writer and analyst for MotorsportsAnalytics.com and the co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast. Prior to BetMGM, he was a contributor for The Washington Post, NASCAR.com and The Athletic. He previously served 13 years as a NASCAR driver talent scout on behalf of sports agencies MMI, Spire and RSMG.