Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Martin Truex Jr. Dominates to Win Loudon at Last

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Just over 23 years ago Monday, a barely 20-year-old Martin Truex Jr. took the best equipment his family-owned team could build to the then-Busch North Series Thatlook.com 100 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he put that car on the pole and led every lap, beating many of his childhood heroes. For Truex, it was the first time he realized he might be able to make a career out of racing. 

The track where he got that first win is several hours from his hometown in New Jersey, but it has always felt like home to Truex. Perhaps more than any other track, he wanted a Cup win at Loudon. And Monday, after the rain came and went, Truex bookended that 23-year wait with a win nearly as dominant, leading 254 of 301 laps to finally get his Cup win and the giant lobster that came with it in the Crayon 301. 

See also
Martin Truex Jr. Wins 3rd Cup Race of Season With New Hampshire Victory

Truex has come close before, had the best car before, but finally put it all together, celebrating with a burnout that made it clear just how much he’d wanted it.

And don’t forget Austin Dillon. Dillon started a respectable 11th, but it was good strategy calls and a gutsy move to stay out on old tires late in the race that really turned heads. The No. 3 team left Dillon out with just over 50 to go, knowing older tires were a disadvantage. Dillon hung on to lead 12 laps, and the track position he’d grabbed allowed him to end the day with a solid ninth-place finish. Dillon didn’t have the car to grab any stage points, but he and his team made the best of what they had to grab a respectable finish.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

It’s a question that has been batted around for a while, but is growing more urgent by the day: will Truex retire after this year? Team owner Joe Gibbs says he needs a decision sooner rather than later, and Truex, especially with that coveted win finally in his pocket, ran like this race could be his swan song. He’s a title favorite, and the chance to go out on top is appealing.

When asked about it after the race, Truex kept the answer close to his chest while also being as honest as he could about what’s weighing on his mind. The tone of his voice, the nostalgia in his words hinted that perhaps the decision has been made, but the driver isn’t ready to say it out loud yet. “Soon,” he says. For his fans, when the decision does come, it will be too soon.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Christopher Bell won this race a year ago and after qualifying, it looked like he might have the car to do it again, but an early pit road mistake by his team put Bell deep in the field. He worked his way back into the top 10 but didn’t quite have the car to get more than that. A single-car crash with just 11 laps to go ended Bell’s chances of a top finish. He went home empty-handed in 29th.

Defending Cup champ Joey Logano had a good short-run car, and that, combined with good pit strategy all day to keep him near the front, put him in position to capitalize on a late restart. But even then, Logano didn’t have enough for Truex, finishing second. Logano has built his championship seasons on his consistency, and this was the kind of race that can get him to the championship finale. 

Active NHMS win leader Kevin Harvick strapped in for the final time at The Magic Mile and, between the flags, led the 16,000th lap of his career. Harvick gambled on track position on a restart with 25 to go but couldn’t hold off the charging Truex. Harvick leaves Loudon for the final time with a fourth-place run.

When… was the moment of truth?

In some races, the defining moment is easy to miss; it comes on a mid-race pit stop without fanfare, in others it’s a fiery crash or a door-to-door battle. This time, it was a pass for the lead on the second lap and an all-out dominant performance by Truex that sealed the day.

The takeaway here is that the title race is absolutely fluid. There aren’t as many winners as last year, but the wild cards are huge. Was Michael McDowell on your preseason bracket (you, in the back, stop lying)? Probably not, and while he’s not a title favorite, he’s very much in playoff contention on points alone. 

With three wins, Truex could certainly be a favorite—he’s strong on the flat tracks and the title race is on a flat track. But so much changes week to week with the Next Gen car that’s still hard to get a consistent handle on after over a year (and that’s a good thing for the sport). It is so much that whoever wins every week is a title favorite until he proves he isn’t.

See also
Only Yesterday: 10 Years Ago, Michael Waltrip Made Positive Impact Amid Tragedy

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

Suddenly, there are just six races to go before the playoffs. With 11 spots sealed up due to wins, look for competition for the last five places to heat up. Entering New Hampshire, there were four drivers within 13 points for 16th place. Not in that group yet is Chase Elliott, who is mired in points leaving Loudon after missing several weeks due to injury and a one-race suspension. Elliott is going to have to win, and his chances are dwindling. Look for him, and others in a similar position, to ramp up the aggression in the coming weeks.

The Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway this week, and that means a strategy game. Pocono is about timing pit stops and managing fuel as well as setting up a car for three corners that are so different it’s nearly impossible to hit them all. For fans, that all means sometimes finishes are tight, sometimes somebody cruises to the win. 

You never know what you’re going to get at Pocono, and that just makes the finish even more valuable for the drivers on the bubble. 

How… many beginnings and endings does this sport give us?

The first time I saw a NASCAR race, it was at New Hampshire. The first driver I saw take a win was Jeff Burton. I’ve seen multiple drivers get their first wins, some at this very track.

But for every first, there’s a last. Monday marked Harvick’s last race at Loudon and Truex’s first win at the track he loves. Has Harvick had his last win? Did Truex make his last start on the day he won? For every winning driver, there’s a first and a last. Sometimes, they’re the same race, others, there are dozens of checkered flags between the first and final ones.

Sometimes, you can see the years tick away, the driver just as hungry as he was all those years ago. It’s evident in Harvick as it was in Kurt Busch before he didn’t get to choose his last race. He walked away, though, while others haven’t.

If there is a lesson in the firsts and lasts we get to see in this sport, maybe it’s to make note of those firsts and hang on to them, because time will eventually make the young driver a veteran. Savor the lasts, too, because they give the story meaning.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Dawg

My unanswered question, & what I’d be talking about after this race.

Would be, what in the world happened to Kyle Busch? This was the most unlike Kyle weekend I’ve ever seen. He wrecked the car every time he was on track with it.

A couple more weeks like this one, & they might want to put Braxton in it.

WJW Motorsports

The only real question that matters now and for the rest of the season is, who will NASCAR select as winners and losers come Tuesday/Wednesday in the week? No, Marty didn’t suddenly “find” his unbelievable talent yet again, no more than he suddenly found it in the 78 and 19. We have spec cars with fixed parts that cannot be changed. No, cars are not magically finding speed because crew chiefs are good with tire pressures… Bottom line is – when NASCAR “sees” where the speed comes from on tear down – what do they do about it, and when….

DoninAjax

Is vinyl making another comeback?

Echo

Betcha the 23 makes the playoffs lololol better vinyl.

Echo

I’ve said that all year about bubba’s car.

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