After missing the playoffs and going winless in 2022, Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team put an incredible turnaround together for 2023.
It started with an exhibition win in the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and Truex returned to victory lane with wins at Dover Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway en route to the 2023 regular season championship.
Going into the playoffs, Truex had all the momentum. In an 18-race span from the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track race in April to Watkins Glen International in August, Truex led 756 laps and scored 14 top-10 finishes to go along with his three wins.
Flash forward to the end of September, however, and all of that feels like a distant memory. After a red-hot summer, Truex has gone ice-cold in the postseason.
It’s been more than a month since Truex’s most recent top 10 at Watkins Glen, and he hasn’t had an average running position better than 10th in a race since Michigan International Speedway in early August. After a 17th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (Sept. 24), Truex has finished outside the top 15 in his last five starts.
To find the last time Truex went that long without a top 15, you’d have to go back to his days with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2011.
Teams are more prone to inconsistent results and attrition with the Next Gen car, and Truex has by no means had good luck in the last month. After all, the No. 19 team had a loose wheel at Darlington Raceway, crashed out at Kansas Speedway and got spun at Texas, to name a few.
What’s alarming, however, is that while the current skid has certainly been a product of misfortune, Truex has not had the speed to recover from it; all the speed he showed in the summer seems to have disappeared.
In the playoff-opening Southern 500, Truex qualified 31st. He worked his way up to the top 15 in stage two until the loose wheel under green took him off the lead lap. He managed to get back on the lead lap in the final stage, but once he was there, he made no forward progress with an ill-handling car and finished 17th.
Kansas will remain the biggest what-if. He qualified third but sunk immediately with an issue that turned out to be a right-rear tire puncture. And when the car slammed into the turn 3 wall on lap 3, the day was already over.
Would Truex have contended for the win if it wasn’t for the issue at Kansas? If he did, I wouldn’t even be writing this column. But at the end of the day, it’s something we’ll never know.
At Bristol, Truex qualified fifth and had decent speed in the first stage until the No. 19 team elected to pit for four tires twice in the first 135 laps. The second stop put Truex outside the top 25, and it was a struggle from then on, as Truex was only able to muster a 19th-place finish, two laps down to the leader.
With all the misfortune, Truex only scored two stage points in the Round of 16. But it was just enough, as Truex scrapped his way into the Round of 12 by just five points.
With 36 playoff points at his disposal in the next round, Texas represented the perfect opportunity to reset. And while Truex did get spun at the end of stage one, the No. 19 car was a nonfactor for the entire day en route to another 17th-place finish.
Nevertheless, 17 is by no means a safe number, and up next is Talladega Superspeedway, a track where Truex has struggled with an average finish of 21.4 in 37 career Cup starts.
A poor finish or an early wreck at Talladega would be enough to put Truex on thin ice heading into the Round of 12 finale at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. And if Truex enters Charlotte below the cut, will he have enough speed to come from behind to reach the Round of 8? If he does, it hasn’t been on display since August.
There’s still time for Truex and the No. 19 team to turn around what has been a brutal start to the playoffs. But there is less and less margin for error as the playoffs continue, and the regular season champion is at serious risk of missing the Round of 8 or the Championship 4 if things don’t improve.
About the author
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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