Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Hamlin and Harvick. The 4 and the 11.
With 11 wins in 23 races, those two drivers have claimed much of the chatter about NASCAR Cup Series championship favorites. They are atop of the point standings and have separated themselves from the pack in playoff points.
Currently seventh in the standings is Martin Truex Jr. whose No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team has just one win on the season, at Martinsville. Truex has led over 400 laps, though, and his 14 top-10 finishes are fourth-most in the series.
With the postseason right around the corner, Truex’s crew chief James Small is confident his Toyota Camry and driver can “100 percent” go head to head with both Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick and JGR teammate Hamlin. And Truex has been in the final four the last three years.
“It’s pretty common, from the (Furniture Row) time to the 19 time – over the years, people forget we even exist,” said Small. “The same thing happened leading into the playoffs last year. We were really fast, and I think we’ve been as fast this year if not better at a lot of these tracks of late; but things just haven’t gone our way. We’ve made small mistakes across the road; I’ve made some, Martin’s made some, the mechanics have made some, the pit crew – little things that have to be perfect to win a race.
“Michigan and Pocono, they’re typically really, really good tracks for the 4 and the 11. Same with Indy. (But) I feel like now we’re getting into our strong part of the season, and I think we’ll be perfectly fine, to be honest. I think it’s going to be out of us three, (though) the 2 [Brad Keselowski] has been running well; (so has) the 12 [Ryan Blaney]. Maybe the 9 [Chase Elliott] will get back up there. We’ll see.”
A speeding penalty at the Daytona road course forced Truex to come from the rear of the field in the final stage. He finished third. In New Hampshire, it was an uncontrolled tire; Truex finished third there, too, and is on a streak of five consecutive third-place finishes going back to Kansas. It’s a modern-era record, but one Small admits is getting frustrating because, while there is solace in how well the team is running, there have been opportunities given up to earn playoff points and wins. Kentucky should have been won, he believes, and it was disappointing to see a rookie, Cole Custer, steal it.
“When you’re running really good, like Kansas, third there was terrible,” said Small. “We should have won that race; we had the best car. But then at Loudon, we were a third-place car. So, you take that. Michigan was a struggle in the second race. We were crap. We were at the back and made some changes, so coming away from there with a third was great.
“It all depends on how you’re running.”
If there is one concern for Small, it’s the team’s lack of playoff points. Truex has seven playoff points behind the 35 of Harvick, 30 of Hamlin, 21 of Keselowski, 16 of Elliott, 14 of Joey Logano, and eight of Blaney.
“It’s definitely not great,” he said. “Probably the worst position we’ve been in in terms of playoff points. But at the end of the day, if you can win a race every round, that really is irrelevant. I feel like we can quite easily do that, so that’s our plan.”