- Martin Truex Jr. has won seven races this season, which doubles his career total. It's been a great year and it would mean a lot more if he can also capture the Monster Energy Cup Championship.
NEW YORK—Martin Truex Jr. powered by Brad Keselowski on the low side just before reaching turn three at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last March. He took the checkered flag half a minute later for his first win of the 2017 season.
Truex rocketed away from the field two months later on a restart with two laps remaining at Kansas Speedway. He bettered Keselowski by multiple car lengths for his second win of the year. He’s gone on to win five more times, most recently at Kansas again last month, to give him the most victories in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heading into Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
When listening to a list of his accomplishments, Truex just laughed. “What a year,” he said. Most wins, most stage wins, most laps led, most top-5’s, most top-10’s. He doubled his career wins total this year. It took him 398 starts over 13 seasons to notch his seventh career triumph; he earned his seventh victory of this season in the 32nd race.
Of course, Truex’s ultimate achievement still looms: A championship to bring No. 78’s supreme season full circle. He won’t find too much consolation in an extraordinary year if he fails to capture the grand prize.
“It will be very disappointing,” Truex said. “Yes, this season’s been incredible. But it would hurt to not win it. No doubt.”
The three other drivers in NASCAR’s “Championship Four” have all previously secured a championship. Keselowski claimed his in 2012. Kevin Harvick won his in 2014. And Kyle Busch sealed his in 2015. Truex’s masterful season coupled with his competitor’s championship mettle almost makes him a favorite and an underdog at the same time. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“I really don’t care,” Truex said. “I don’t think that changes anything. I have a lot of respect for those guys. Not just because they’re champions, but because they’re great racers. But I think I got what it takes, too.”
Busch might represent Truex’s largest speed bump between him and a championship. The No. 18 car has five wins this season, second most behind Truex. Busch finds himself in the Championship Four for the third straight season.
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In 2015, Busch was running near the front at Homestead with less than 30 laps remaining. He was eight seconds clear of Harvick, his closest competition for the championship. If he stayed in his position, he’d win his first career title.
“It was being told to me over the radio the entire time: ‘Look, you do not have to win the race to win the championship. You’re sitting fine. Don’t worry about going up there with those guys or getting in a mess with them in order to try to win the race. There’s only one thing that matters. It’s the championship,’” Busch said.
But Busch did what he does best: won the race anyway. Two years later, he said that Truex’s dominance on 1.5-mile tracks just might prevent him from replicating his previous fortunes. Six of Truex’s seven wins this season have come at 1.5-mile racetracks. Harvick actually boasts the top average finish at Homestead among the Championship Four drivers—by a long shot. His average place in Miami is 6.9. Truex owns the second-best mark at 12.3. Busch, who has been hit or miss at the track, comes in last at 19.8.
Keselowski’s average finish at Homestead is 15.9. His championship in 2012 came before NASCAR’s new Championship Four format. He finished 15th at Homestead in ‘12, but it was enough to stay atop the standings when the checkered flag waved. Now, Homestead is almost a must-win race in order to capture the Cup. The last three championship winners all won the final race.
“Reality is, you’re probably going to need to win the race to win the championship,” Keselowski, who backed into title contention with a 16th place finish last week at Phoenix, said.
“This is a race that you’re going to have to win if you want to win the championship,” Harvick echoed. “You have to go with the mindset of ‘I’m going to win this race.’ That’s how you have to prepare. That’s how you approach it. And that’s how you go for it from a strategy standpoint. If you’re conservative, there’s going to be somebody who isn’t. That won’t work this week. You have to win.”
Truex has been anything but conservative down the stretch. He owns the best average finish (4.7) among Championship Four drivers throughout the previous nine races in this year’s playoffs. He’s recorded a top-5 in all but one of those races, including three wins. Though the stakes are much higher this weekend, Truex won’t change his routine heading into Homestead. His regular regimen merited his first win eight months ago in Las Vegas and produced his seventh four weeks ago in Kansas. His track record indicates that he’s primed for his biggest conquest of the season in Miami.
“I don’t do anything different to prepare,” Truex said. “I feel like if you do, you either weren’t doing something right before or you’re reaching for something that’s not possible this time around.
“I think we have momentum and confidence right now. Having confidence and momentum is what makes you make the right decisions in critical moments. It’s definitely a bonus. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to win, but it gives us the best opportunity to win.”