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Martin Truex Jr. on the Brink of Making the Wrong Kind of History

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver of the No. 19 Toyota Camry suffered a tire puncture at Kansas, resulting in a 36th-place finish.   

By Andrew Woodin
Close up of Martin Truex Jr. waiting on the grid

Martin Truex Jr. may have won the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series regular season championship, but the postseason for NASCAR’s top flight is a fickle beast.

Like its regular season sibling, a simple nudge here or a slight tap there in the Cup Series playoffs can have profound consequences on a race — but when each of the 16 drivers in the postseason field is hyper-focused on point accumulation, the pressure is intensified. The mistakes are magnified. And, unfortunately, any catastrophe is compounded. Just ask Truex Jr., who's now on the precipice of potentially becoming the first regular-season victor to miss the Round of 12, according to NBC Sports.

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For Joe Gibbs Racing’s 43-year-old wheelman, the pressure was mounting prior to the playoffs. After scoring back-to-back top-10 finishes at the Brickyard in Indy and the following race at The Glen, Truex Jr. did take Stage 1 at Daytona, but overall, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona — the final race of the regular season — was not kind to the New Jersey native. He survived a Stage 2 crash, but managed only a 24th-place finish. Truex Jr. spoke about the day’s disappointment that started in Stage 2.

“As soon as the 11 car [Denny Hamlin] had his issue in Stage 2, we kind of got shuffled back a little bit,” Truex said at the time, according to Autoweek. “I felt like I was in a really bad spot. I decided to bail. Luckily, I did because of the huge pileup a few laps later. Didn’t really get to race the way I wanted to once we kind of got in that position. We just kind of had to be smart about it. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but we had to do what we had to do.”

Still, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion clinched his second regular season title during the race, but the downhill slide was already gaining momentum.

Along with losing two laps during an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 153 from a loose wheel, Truex Jr.’s Toyota teammates at JGR, Hamlin and Christopher Bell, clearly outpaced him during the first playoff event at Darlington — a race where he led zero laps. He managed to somewhat skirt a complete disaster by earning an 18th-place finish, but it wasn’t until after the race that Truex Jr.’s No. 19 team discovered why his pace was off when they unearthed a bent car part, originating from him scraping the wall during a practice session at the South Carolina track.

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"It was an unfortunate time for it to happen obviously, our car was really good in practice until the issue,” said Truex Jr., according to Sportskeeda. “So, live and learn, I mean I really haven't had any issues like that with this car like, 'Hey, something's gonna be wrong on Monday when we look at everything.’”

"I barely hit the wall, but I just don't have a lot of experience with it,” he added. "So, bad way to start it off, felt like it was an opportunity for us last week, and we probably should have run up front."

It hasn't gotten much better. After losing four points at Darlington and finishing 25 points above the cutline, the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday was only in its second lap when Truex Jr. radioed that he was tight and had no traction on his front-right tire. Dale Earnhardt Jr. immediately recognized he was losing ground to the field, triggering him to announce on the broadcast that, “There’s something wrong with that race car.”

Split image of Dale Earnhardt and Martin Truex Jr.

Almost immediately, Truex Jr. careened high into the wall, crippling the No. 19 Toyota's front suspension and rendering his vehicle undriveable for the remainder of the race. It was later determined that Truex Jr. had punctured his tire, but the damage and the end result was all the same: a 36th-place finish that puts him seven points below the playoff cutline. Truex Jr. commented on his misfortune after the race.

“I knew something was up right away,” he told FOX Sports. “I was crazy tight, but I didn’t expect the tire to blowout, so I don’t know. Very unlucky. We were going to have an awesome day. I felt really good about it. That’s racing, as they say.”

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With his streak of bad luck continuing, Truex Jr. provided a glimpse into his outlook for Bristol, a track he’s never won on in the past.

“We’ll see what we have to do when today is over,” offered Truex Jr. “You never know where it’s going to end up. A bunch of guys could have problems, and we could be alright again. Ultimately, I hate it for my team. ... We had a great year, and we had an awesome car today.”

“I really felt like we could go out and win the race, and for that to happen, it just sucks,” he added. “We don’t even get a chance; we shouldn’t have even showed up at this point.”

“It’s just a real punch in the gut.”

Over his career at Bristol, Truex Jr. has an average finish of 20.8, making the half-mile banked oval his fifth-worst track in the circuit, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Ahead of the 13th-place Truex Jr. are Kevin Harvick in 12th, Joey Logano in 11th, Chris Buescher and Christopher Bell both in ninth place, and Ross Chastain holding down eighth place. That's a talented bunch, and Truex Jr. will have to leapfrog at least one of them to remain in title contention. But, as he well knows, the NASCAR playoffs are a fickle beast.