Martin Truex is riding a wave of momentum as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series goes to the Kentucky Speedway for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 (7:30 PM ET, TNT). After a strong third-place finish two weeks ago, Truex got the win last week in Sonoma and with it vaulted into 10th place overall, the cutoff point for automatic qualification for the postseason.
Truex broke into the circuit full-time back in 2006 and when he finished in the Top 20 for 2007-08, the future looked bright. But 2009 saw him take a step back and plummet to 23rd, before marginal improvement moved him up one spot a year late. The past two seasons have seen the driver gradually regain his momentum, as he placed 18th in 2011 and a 11th a year ago. Is the momentum of the last two weeks going to mimic the momentum of the last two years? If so, Truex could finally get his first career Top 10 finish.
The results of last Sunday had a profound effect on the push for the two wild-card spots that go to non-Top 10 finishers (see a complete layman’s explanation of NASCAR postseason qualification). Truex’s win and subsequent move into the Top 10 mean that the wild-card spots today are held by Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, the only two drivers outside the Top 10 to have won a race.
That means the pressure is considerably enhanced on drivers like Paul Menard, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano, all of whom have the necessary points to be in the wild-card mix, but they have to win a race. We knew this point in the season would eventually arrive, when points alone would not be enough, and the Truex win at Sonoma made that a reality.
I discussed Truex’s season with TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, and Bill sees the ability to close as the key issue in the driver’s prospects. Bill pointed out that while Truex often runs consistently, he’d only won one race in his entire career prior to last Sunday. “It’s similar to Juan Montoya this year,” Bill said. “He’s been in position to win two different races, but hasn’t had the luck.”
Bill attributes most problems with closing races to luck—be it Truex, Montoya or any other driver. While Bill’s forgotten more about NASCAR than I know, I do think when a trend builds up over seven and a half years, it’s tough to say it’s all about luck. It reminds me of the Oakland A’s from 1999-2003, when their GM, Billy Beane, said “the playoffs are a crapshoot.” Yet his teams lost nine consecutive games where they had a chance to advance. Luck evens out over time. In the case of the A’s—and in the case of Truex, to get back on topic—it hadn’t been. We’ll see if last week marked a turning point.
MY NEW KENTUCKY HOME
The Kentucky Speedway is a new track, having just starting hosting NASCAR races two years ago. From a standpoint of fan-friendliness there have been issues. In 2011, Bill recalled the problems the track had with getting fans in, to the point that the race was half over by the time a lot of them were in their seat. Suffice it to say, attendance dropped in 2012.
There’s no reason to see any impact on the race results in this, but it’s an interesting little sidebar, as the good people of Sparta, KY look to show they can handle the logistics associated with such a big even.
As a new track, it’s unsurprising that the Kentucky Speedway is a character-less, cookie-cutter, so there are no unique issues the drivers will have to deal with. When that happens, it favors the chalk. The Las Vegas betting lines have Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch slotted as co-favorites, at 6-1. Matt Kenseth is right behind at 7-1, with Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin settling in with an 8-1 price tag.
Eight drivers are in a muddle between 12-1 and 15-1. One of them is Truex, at the 15-1 number. Expecting him to win two races in a row is unreasonable. But wondering if last Sunday in Sonoma represented a turning point in his ability to close out a strong day is not.