Dr. Diandra: Will Martin Truex Jr.’s playoff bubble burst?

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One playoff-eligible new winner in the next four Cup Series races will force a duel between Martin Truex, Jr. and Ryan Blaney for the last playoff spot — unless that winner is Truex or Blaney.

There’s been at least one new winner in the last four regular-season races every year since 2018.

Truex’s history

Truex ran his first Cup Series race in 2004 at age 24. He earned his first points-race win with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2007 at Dover. His second win came seven years later, with Michael Waltrip Racing. Then “Spingate” cost him his sponsor, and he landed at Furniture Row Racing.

Truex won the championship three years later, only to have Furniture Row announce it would shutter after the 2018 season. Truex has been with Joe Gibbs Racing since 2019 and announced in June that he would stay with the team for the 2023 season.

That history is to help make sense of the ups and downs in Truex’s career graph. The man has literally had to start over more than once.

A stacked bar chart showing the career history of Martin Truex, Jr.
A stacked bar chart showing the career history of Martin Truex, Jr.

In 607 races, the 42-year-old driver has 31 wins, 132 top-five finishes and 257 top-10 finishes. That’s a 5.1% win rate, a 21.7% top-five rate and a 42.3% top-10 finish rate.

Truex in 2022

The Next Gen car has challenged everyone, but Toyota more than most. With only six cars, Toyota collects a third of the data Ford and Chevy collect. Limited practice time forces teams to rely heavily on simulations. Less data means Toyota takes longer to validate its simulations relative to other manufacturers.

Truex’s year-at-a-glance graph reflects that challenge.

A scatter plot (top) and vertical bar chart (bottom) showing the rank and finishes of Martin Truex Jr. over the 2022 season through race 22
A scatter plot (top) and vertical bar chart (bottom) showing the rank and finishes of Martin Truex Jr. over the 2022 season through race 22

At this time last year, Truex had cemented a place in the playoffs with three wins. He had seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10 finishes. This year, Truex is yet to win and has only three top-five finishes. He hasn’t finished better than fourth.

Truex’s biggest accomplishment is seven stage wins, more than anyone else in the Cup Series — and two more than Ryan Blaney. Those seven stage wins came at only four tracks. He won Stage 1 and Stage 2 at Daytona, Nashville and the second Atlanta race, but finished 22nd, 13th and 11th.

Among Truex’s other strengths:

  • He’s first in percentage of laps run on the lead lap with 94.57%.

  • Truex has run 6.6% of the fastest laps this year, tying him for third with Ross Chastain. It’s a tight category, however: Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott tie for the lead, with 7.2% of the fastest laps each.

  • Truex’s average finish position — 13.63 — ranks him fourth among all drivers and first among Toyota teams. Chase Elliott ranks first overall with a 10.32 average finish position. As the graph below shows, Blaney is just slightly behind Truex, with a 13.72 average finishing position.

A scatter plot comparing Toyota drivers' average finishes with those of Elliott (number one rank) and Blaney
A scatter plot comparing Toyota drivers' average finishes with those of Elliott (number one rank) and Blaney

Truex is fifth in laps led and seventh in green-flag speed.

Truex’s two DNFs were due to crashes rather than equipment failures. Failing to finish only two races is an accomplishment in a season with 141 DNFs thus far. Last year, there were only 97 DNFs after 22 races. This year’s total is the largest at this point in the season since 2014, when there were 150 DNFs.

The No. 19 has been involved in six accidents and one spin, which is on the low side this season. NASCAR, however, logs only incidents that bring out cautions. The lap-80 crash at the Indy road course ruined Truex’s finish there, even though it doesn’t show up in official totals.

How to beat Blaney

Blaney led Truex by 71 points leaving New Hampshire, but Truex whittled that lead to 25 points. Three areas stand out as places Truex could find performance improvements to win or at least close the points gap.

Truex ranks 15th in restarts while Blaney comes in eighth. At tracks where passing is difficult, gaining positions on restarts can be a huge advantage.

The top-four restarters drive for Chevy: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain and William Byron. Christopher Bell, in fifth place, is the highest ranking Toyota on restarts. Truex is fourth out of the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in this metric.

As you might have guessed given Truex’s finishes in races where he won both Stage 1 and Stage 2, closing remains a challenge. The “closers” stat measures how many positions a driver gains or loses in the last 10 percent of the race.

After Indy, only four drivers ranked below Blaney in closing, but one of them is Truex.

Truex lost 44 positions in the last 10 percent of races this year, including 18 positions at Nashville (where he won both stages) and 13 at Sonoma. He beats only Erik Jones (-57 positions), William Byron (-52) and Joey Logano (-47) in closing ability.

Blaney has lost 43 positions, so even small gains could make a meaningful difference in the Truex versus Blaney competition.

There is some validity to the argument that the closers stat depends a lot on luck; however, if it were only luck, the position gains and losses would be more evenly distributed. Some drivers seem to have a better ability to stay out of, or get through, trouble on track.

The third area where Truex could improve is qualifying. Truex has the lowest average starting position of all JGR drivers. That’s especially significant given that the Ryan Blaney has the best average qualifying position.

A scatter plot comparing Toyota drivers' average starts with those of Elliott (number one rank) and Blaney
A scatter plot comparing Toyota drivers' average starts with those of Elliott (number one rank) and Blaney

The Future

Truex’s prognosis for Michigan is mixed. His average finish is 13.7 over 31 races, 11th best among active drivers. He has 10 top fives and 14 top 10s.

If we consider only recent history, Truex has top-five finishes in four out of the last five Michigan races, giving him a 4.6 average finish. In addition, he finished 13th at Fontana and seventh at Pocono this year.

But Truex has never won at Michigan. In fact, Toyota has only one win at Michigan in the last 19 races, while Fords have won the last seven.

And Ryan Blaney won the most recent Michigan race.

The worst scenario for Truex and Blaney is a win for Kevin Harvick, who would then vault over both of them in the playoffs and leave only one position open. Although Harvick hasn’t won since Sept. 2020, he has won four of the last six races at Michigan.

On the positive side for the two winless drivers, no one has earned their first win of the season at Michigan since 2016, when Kyle Larson earned his first career Cup Series win.

The last two races in the regular season are a road course and a superspeedway. Given Toyota’s struggles at road courses this year, winning Watkins Glen is a reach. Truex is second in points earned at superspeedways in 2022; however, much is out of a driver’s control at Daytona. The risk for being taken out by an accident will be even higher than normal given that it will be the final chance for winless drivers to make the playoffs.

Truex’s best chance for a win is Richmond, the third-to-last race in the regular season. He finished fourth there in April and teammate Denny Hamlin won. A win at Richmond would allow Truex to enter the last two races of the season focusing on stage points rather than worrying whether he’ll even make it into the playoffs.

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Dr. Diandra: Will Martin Truex Jr.’s playoff bubble burst? originally appeared on NBCSports.com