Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Is the Regular Season Championship Meaningless?

The Joe Gibbs Racing collective didn’t have a very good night at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago.

They were fast, as were all the Toyotas, but the ultimate result was a nightmare. Last week in Kansas, Martin Truex Jr. showed speed for the one lap his racecar was intact. A puncture and wall impact leaves him below the cut line heading into the Bristol Motor Speedway Night Race – a track where he’s not exactly had a lot of success.

From regular season champion to a potential first round exit, has the 2023 season again proven the fallacy of the first 26 races, or can MTJ and James Small rebound to propel the No. 19 into the next round?

This week Amy Henderson and Stephen Stumpf outline their case in 2-Headed Monster.

Meaningless! Regular Season Awards a Chase After the Wind…

Seven points.

After a 26-race battle just to get to this point, a battle that Truex won, it took just two weeks to come tumbling back down to reality. Seven points currently separate him, arguably the best driver for the bulk of the year, from being able to move on as a title contender. If he can’t make up those seven points, his season is, for all intents and purposes, over.

If he’s eliminated from contention, he’ll get barely a mention during the final seven races, unless he wins, and even then, other than another pretty trophy for the shelf, it would be a dead-end victory, one that doesn’t do much for Truex or his team after that 26-race run other than offer a little redemption, too little, too late.

It’s just seven points, and it’s possible that Truex could have a great night at Bristol and erase it, though the rival on the good side of that seven-point gap is Kevin Harvick, who has historically been better at Bristol than Truex. The same goes for Joey Logano, who’s 12 points up on Truex, also a surmountable gap. History offers a mixed prognosis for Truex.

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In the last three years, only one driver who was below the cut line after the 28th race was able to climb over it by the end of the 29th to move on.

Overall, it’s been a 50-50 proposition since the introduction of stage and playoff points in 2017. So while Truex isn’t quite dead in the water yet, the situation doesn’t quite sit right. The playoff system, with its elaborate set of rules and extra points, was ostensibly created to reward season-long consistency. Stage points, playoff points, points from top finishes — those, so we were told, would reward the best driver all year, help ensure that he was in it at the end.

Consistency in the first 26 races would be rewarded, NASCAR said, with a handsome number of playoff points as well as a trophy for the regular season title.

But if Truex doesn’t move on, the regular season title — which is the best indicator of the best driver for the long haul — is all but meaningless.

Since 2017 and the addition of stage and playoff points, the regular season champion has won the title three times – as they probably should have. In the other three years the regular season winner has made the championship race twice and missed it once. But in all three of those years, the regular season champion had a statistically better season than the eventual champion, besting the titlist in wins, top fives, top 10s and average finish across the board.

So, with Truex down, and, if past performance at Bristol holds true, potentially out, maybe it’s time for NASCAR to acknowledge that the regular season championship isn’t worth the cost of engraving the trophy.

If Truex misses the cut Saturday night, he will close the season statistically better than several of the drivers who will not miss out, and with the very real possibility of being statistically the best driver in 2023 (he’s not quite there, but has time to make that case), with nothing to show for it but a nice trophy, that doesn’t really hold anything. – Amy Henderson

Truex Will Advance, and the Regular Season Title Has Kept Him in It

From missing the playoffs to scoring three wins and the regular season championship, it’s been a comeback year for Martin Truex Jr. — and he’s poised to come back yet again.

The first two races of the 2023 playoffs, however, have been ones that the No. 19 team would like to forget. Truex first got off to a slow start at Darlington Raceway by qualifying 31st. He had cracked the top 15 toward the beginning of stage two, but a loose wheel put him two laps down. It was an uphill battle from there.

Truex was only able to manage 18th with no stage points at what has become one of his best tracks in recent years.

At Kansas, the No. 19 team’s race was over before it even began. Truex started third but quickly sunk through the field with an apparent problem, and a tire puncture on lap 3 was all she wrote for the day.

Aside from the poor qualifying at Darlington, none of the issues were of Truex’s doing. It wasn’t that he just forgot how to drive. But bad luck is the way racing goes, and Kansas the worst time to have it. And yes, while very few will care about who won the regular season title by the time the championship trophy is handed out at Phoenix Raceway, winning it is still important because of the playoff point perks. 

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By winning the regular season title alongside his three wins, Truex has earned enough playoff points to enter the Bristol Night Race just seven points below the cut. Without the regular season title bonus, he’d be 22 down; a far more challenging deficit to come back from.

The elephant in the room for Truex this weekend is that Bristol hasn’t been one of his best tracks. In 32 career starts, he has only recorded four top 10s in Thunder Valley. He has picked up the pace is recent years, however, as he was a top-10 car in 2021 and was a contender to win in 2019 until an issue put him two laps down.

In fact, it may not even take a top 10 on Saturday. In last year’s Bristol Night Race, eight of the 16 drivers finished 19th or worse, and all eight finished at least six laps down. Everyone from Blaney in sixth to Truex in 13th are separated by just 25 points heading into Saturday night, and the first-round eliminations may very well be decided by who can get out of Thunder Valley in one piece.

With that said, Truex, James Small and Joe Gibbs Racing won’t succumb to the pressure. They’ll put up a solid performance, and they’ll avoid trouble to squeak into the next round, proving the value of their efforts in the regular season. – Stephen Stumpf

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.

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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10 Comments
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DoninAjax

How many times has the team with the best Regular Season record won the World Series? Or the number 1 seed won the Stupor Bowl? If the season was 36 events long like it should be Truex might have won a real Championship.

Ronald Thornton

Truex may have won the regular season, but in the old school world, he just lost points lead to Byron. Playoffs wouldn’t change that. He would although still have plenty of races to regain lead. As of today the championship would be up for grabs and it would be a 2-3 man race with asshole Hamlin in the conversation. And maybe more assholes in contention.

Echo

I think Truex makes the cut due to one of those above him has a huge problem. I would like to see Truex in the final if only because he is one of the few that can really give Hamlin a problem. Hamlin has had a super fast car all season long it seems and I want anyone but Hamlin to win.

Bill B

I’d count Larson as one of the few that could outdo Hamlin in any given week. Personally, from a strictly talent POV, I think Larson is the better driver. Of course, that is only one factor of many that determines who wins in any given race.

Truex being out in the first round is what makes the format a joke. I felt the same way the year Harvick was the point leader and got eliminated (and I don’t even like him).

Echo

I’ve always thought Larson is a better driver than Denny. Denny’s team has found something and I don’t think he is sharing with Gibbs. How else can you explain bubba just suddenly starts running near the front every week. Nascar would love to have bubba in the final 4. Nascar can manipulate speeding on pit road, cautions … And I wouldn’t be surprised to see it this weekend. I wonder how obvious it will be.

John

The Chase is, was, and always has been a bad idea, just like the various GRW finishes. Go back to the regular 36 season regular points schedule and let them determine the winner. And, if the race finished under caution, so be it. These gimmick formats stink.

John

edit: green-white-checker finishes.

Ronald Thornton

I have to disagree. I loved Nascar when real men raced and accumulated points. But after reconsideration, these playoffs create drama just like nfl and mlb. The regular season requires you to play the montreal expos (old schoolers will know) or the ny jets. Nobody in the seats. The playoffs create exitement and drama. Wreck me in week 3 and no one remembers. Wreck me in the playoffs and it is front page news. Just an anology to be considered. Asses in the seats keeps the train rolling!

Carl Owen

To a competitor every win is important. Both trophies would be the ultimate goal for the season but the first will show that the season was not a total loss. There are a whole lot of drivers that would love to have the trophy that Martin has now.

Ronald Thornton

Hell. I wish I could stand on any stage as a winning driver. Who wouldn’t? But, it’s gotta hurt to win regular season and not get out of first round of playoffs. Truex is in a position to do something never been done. Best to first out. Ouch. Pretty sure he would prefer old school points system right about now, but that ain’t happening. Regular season trophies are easily forgotten. Champions live forever. But, you are right. Not a driver out there that would return that trophy. They would all trade it for championship, but none would just give it away

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