NASCAR: The case for — and against — all 16 playoff drivers

NASCAR Cup Series Championship Trophy - Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Trophy - Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /
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Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR
Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR – Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

NASCAR playoff contenders: No. 1 – Martin Truex Jr.

Last season, Martin Truex Jr. shockingly missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014 after going winless in the regular season. This year, however, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has once again found his mojo, and with three wins in the regular season, he appears to be a serious title threat once again.

The case for Martin Truex Jr.

While he may not have the most wins of any driver, Truex has consistently had the most winning speed of anyone this year. His three wins at Dover Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, and New Hampshire Motor Speedway were all extremely impressive, with him either dominating the entire race or the final stages of it.

And when Truex and the No. 19 team aren’t winning, they are still running right at the front of the pack almost week in and week out. In races at Richmond Raceway, Nashville Superspeedway, Pocono Raceway, and Michigan International Speedway, Truex came extremely close to victory lane before ultimately finding himself just one or two spots short.

However, the most impressive part about Truex’s 2023 season is the fact that he has had blistering speed at just about every type of track, including intermediate tracks, road courses, and short tracks. To win a championship, it is absolutely vital to have race-winning speed everywhere, and he has done exactly that this season.

On top of all of this, Truex has a chip on his shoulder. As mentioned, he missed the 2022 playoffs. Entering 2023, many wrote him off and expected him to further regress. Some even thought he would retire. Instead, he has proven them wrong, returning to his usual form and winning the regular season championship for the first time since 2017.

But the regular season is just the first step for Truex, and now his eyes are set on winning his second career title. With the speed the No. 19 team have had in almost every race this season, it has become clear that the championship will almost certainly run through Truex. He will be extremely tough to beat over these next 10 weeks.

The case against Martin Truex Jr.

The biggest flaw with Truex this season is the same one that ultimately kept him out of the playoffs last year. Despite having winning speed on a frequent basis, crew chief James Small has made some questionable calls that have ultimately kept him from adding to his win total.

In 2022, this happened in several races, most notably at New Hampshire, where he won stages one and two and had the car to beat in the final stage. However, he and Small opted to only take two tires on their final pit stop, while the rest of the field took four.

As a result, Truex ultimately ended up finishing in fourth place, despite leading 172 of 301 laps. Had the team taken four tires, he almost certainly would have won the race and punched his playoff ticket.

This season, there have been a couple of other questionable moves by Small that may have cost Truex some wins. Take the spring race at Richmond Raceway this year, when Truex had one of the fastest cars in the field and was leading the race as the field made their final pit stops.

However, a previous strategy error left Truex with no sets of fresh tires, and the team had to put on a set of used tires. Truex unsurprisingly faded during the final run, ultimately falling outside of the top 10 and finishing in 11th place. The incident led to a heated post-race exchange between the two, and many questioned if it was time to break up the duo.

Next. All-time NASCAR Cup Series wins list. dark

While there haven’t been nearly as many incidents since the Richmond race, it’s hard to say that there won’t be another one in the playoffs, where the pressure is higher. There is no room for similar gaffes.