After eight long months of racing, we’ve reached the Championship 4 cutoff race at Martinsville Speedway.
While Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell are already locked in, there remains two more spots to fill as we head into Phoenix Raceway the following weekend. While William Byron is likely secure and Ryan Blaney perhaps surprisingly has the best record as of late at Martinsville, many are looking to the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who is still seeking a championship as the cornerstone to a remarkable career.
Between the Nos. 11 and 19, who stands the best chance to come out on top? This week Vito Pugliese and Chase Folsom pit the two JGR teammates against each other in 2-Headed Monster.
Heading into the Championship 4 cut off race at Martinsville this weekend, Joe Gibbs Racing finds itself with three rounds in the cylinder. Bell is already locked in following his win last weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as is Larson.
While Hamlin and Truex essentially find themselves in must-win mode as both are tied for sixth in points, 37 points behind Byron and 17 below Blaney. Byron isn’t going anywhere, unless he blows up on lap 1, so that leaves Hamlin and MTJ to draw straws to see who gets in the last lifeboat on the Titanic.
So who stands the best shot at pulling off the heroics this Sunday? Common knowledge would say Hamlin, but I’m uncommonly contrarian, so naturally I will side with Truex.
But is that really so far out of the question?
It’s no secret that Truex and crew chief James Small have been stumbling through the playoffs like a drunk guy trying to sneak in the house at 3 a.m. trying to wake anyone up.
A quick glance at the finishes are nothing less than abysmal. The team has one top-15 finish since Daytona International Speedway – a ninth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They were fast at Kansas Speedway, but lasted all of three laps before a blown tire ended the day.
A pole at Homestead looked to be the turnaround the regular season championship winners needed – but instead they suffered an uncharacteristic engine failure, and dug themselves a hole that’s going to require a miracle to dig out of.
That said, I’d still ride with Truex this weekend over Hamlin.
While Hamlin has inherited the mantle of “Best Driver without a Championship” from Mark Martin (1990 still has an asterisk in my book), he still finds new and innovative ways to retain that branding. Last year he was passed by Ross Chastain going Mach 1 through turns 3 and 4, losing the Championship 4 bid by a foot. This weekend, he had just worked past Blaney when something in the steering broke, sending him into the wall.
What are the chances that the steering breaks on Hamlin’s car, while Truex has an engine let go?
Hamlin does have five wins at Martinsville, but the last one was back in 2015. Lots of top fives to be sure, but also several finishes of 24th-30th. That’s just not going to get it done when most dominant teams here the last five years have been Hendrick Motorsports – and Truex.
All of the current Hendrick teams have won here since 2020. Truex grabbed a win each year from 2019-2021. Most recently, he finished third here in the spring.
During the middle of the season, Truex was demonstrably fast on flat tracks, notching a win at Loudon, followed up with a second place at Pocono Raceway. While Pocono is a mish-mash of three racetracks, it was a run of races where Truex finished seventh or better in six consecutive races. It was also the last time that he finished better than that ninth-place finish at Las Vegas two weeks ago. In short, this team is due for a turn around and if it’s going to happen, it has to be at a track where he’s had good bit of success at recently.
Besides at this point, what do they have to lose? The strategy of waltzing through the playoffs actually would have paid off had they not wrecked out at Kansas and blew up last week. It would almost certainly be Truex and Byron joining Larson and Bell in Phoenix to decide the title. I still think it will be, just with a dump truck full of anxiety, stress, and colorful radio chatter between Truex and crew chief James Small at Martinsville. – Vito Pugliese
Get Ready for the Hail Hamlin
The six remaining playoff drivers who have not locked into Phoenix will have one more shot to do so as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville, as only two spots remain in the Championship 4.
With Larson and Bell’s wins at Las Vegas and Homestead, they’re locked in, and with Byron +30 to the cutline, he’s in a pretty good position to come away with the third spot.
Two drivers not in the best of positions however, are Hamlin and Truex. Two drivers who many had as locks to make the Championship 4 after finishing first and second in the regular season now both find themselves -17 entering Martinsville, so which one has a better shot of coming up clutch at the paperclip?
In my opinion, the answer is Hamlin, for three reasons, all backed by stats. The first of those is the fact that a win is the most likely way for either of those drivers to make the Championship 4, as Blaney who currently holds the fourth spot has the best Martinsville average finish among active drivers.
While both drivers have an awesome track record at Martinsville, Hamlin in particular has a much better track record with the Next Gen car than Truex. In three starts in the Next Gen car, Hamlin has finishes of 28th, fifth, and fourth, while Truex has finishes of 22nd, 20th, and third.
Last fall, Hamlin led 203 laps on the way to that fifth-place finish, and led 36 laps this spring, and in both of those races had arguably the fastest car.
Truex on the other hand, has struggled at Martinsville in the Next Gen car, having not led a single lap, and actually spending a majority of the race a lap down during the 2023 spring race before a caution during a pit cycled saved the No. 19 team’s day.
Another reason I would put my faith in the No. 11 is the possibility of points. If the opportunity were to arise for either team to point their way in, the numbers say that Hamlin would be more successful in doing so. In six chances to score stage points in the Next Gen car, Hamlin has scored points in four of them, scoring 31 stage points total with finishes of first, first, eighth, and third.
In contrast, Truex has not scored stage points in any of the six possible opportunities at Martinsville, and that isn’t going to cut it. Stage points will be pivotal for any effective points racing efforts, and Hamlin clears Truex in that category.
Finally, I simply don’t have faith in the No. 19 team. Truex has been great at Martinsville since joining JGR, that is no secret, and the regular season champion has pulled off walk-off wins before. However, since the green flag flew on the 2023 playoffs at Darlington, Truex and co. simply have not had the speed to compete, and have scraped by thanks to playoff points from round to round.
Following the DNF at Homestead, Truex now has an average finish of 20.75. While Hamlin has a playoff average finish of 14.13 through the playoffs, he also has four top-five finishes in eight races, including a win at Bristol Motor Speedway, compared to Truex’s lone top 15 at Las Vegas.
The fall off of the No. 19 team is something that can really only be compared to that of another JGR team, the No. 18 of Kyle Busch back in 2008, and that isn’t exactly something to be proud of. With Hamlin showing much more speed than his teammate Truex through this postseason run, I’d bank on the No. 11 to be the JGR that pulls off the comeback. – Chase Folsom
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