You have to feel for Martin Truex Jr. because he just can’t seem to get a break.
He’s got a great Michael Waltrip Racing car that produces top-flight Toyota horse power on the 1½-mile tracks, but he’s had quite a few bad beats over the last two seasons that have stopped him from winning his first race since Dover in 2007.
Saturday night at Texas was another in a long line of bad beats for Truex Jr. With no more pit stops remaining and only 20 laps to go, while running away from second-place Kyle Busch, Truex Jr’s old friend “Debris” made an appearance on the track again and the caution flag flew. His 1½ second lead was washed away and forced him into the pits for fresh tires like everyone else, but Busch‘s crew got the No. 18 car out first.
Busch, one of the best in the business on restarts, out-drag raced Truex Jr. for the lead and stayed there for the final 15 laps. Truex Jr. was so close, but so far away. Another sure win got away from the No. 56.
It was at Kansas, site of this week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race, last year when some unexpected gremlins slowed Truex’s car while leading with 20 laps to go. Denny Hamlin made the pass, and then Truex Jr’s car mysteriously came back to life. He almost chased down Hamlin for the win, but would have to settle for another runner-up position, 0.7 seconds behind from victory. He had led 173 of the 267 laps on the day.
In the fall Kansas race, Truex Jr. made a hard charging effort to catch Matt Kenseth but fell 0.54 seconds short. Another runner-up finish and another lost opportunity. If there are any positives that can be spun out of it all, at least the team knows they’re capable of putting one of the fastest cars on 1½-mile tracks. And this time around, they might finally get some of good type of luck instead of the bad type.
Kansas is a flatter track than the 1½-mile tracks run already this season at Las Vegas and Texas, but the variable banking of 17-20 degrees in the turns makes it run more similar to Las Vegas. Between what we saw in Las Vegas in March and last week at Texas – and to an extent, Fontana, we have a lot data to go off to try and find who will be the fastest this week.
To make things simple, you can just look at who won at the three down force tracks this season and simply state that a Joe Gibbs Toyota will win. Matt Kenseth won at Las Vegas and Kyle Busch won at Fontana and Texas. Only two drivers have finished within the top-5 of all three – Busch and Carl Edwards.
It’s apparent that the Toyotas have a major edge over the rest of the field on these types of tracks in the new Gen-6 car and that edge doesn’t look to be challenged this week. In the case of Edwards’ Ford running so consistent, you can’t really say he was contender or a threat to win in any of top-5’s. He simply managed to race hard in the later stages of the race, but his car wasn’t ever close to being as good as Busch’s.
If we look at past history at Kansas since it opened in 2001, it doesn’t come as surprise to see Jimmie Johnson right at the top with a track record average finish of eighth that includes two wins. Most of Johnson’s 62 wins have come of down force tracks and these are types that have made him a five-time Cup Champion.
In three tries this season on the type that has been his preference, he doesn’t have a top-5 yet. Johnson finished sixth at both Las Vegas and Texas and was 12th at Fontana.
The second most successful driver at Kansas has been Greg Biffle with a 9½ average finish and two wins, the last coming in 2010. Biffle was right there with Edwards last week at Texas – finishing fourth, but you never had the feeling that he would have enough to pass either Toyota driven by Busch or Truex Jr.
Jeff Gordon won the first two races at Kansas, and looked to have the best of all non-Toyotas at Texas until experiencing a broken hub with 25 laps to go that ended his night. He consistently ran in the top-5 all night which should give the team some confidence coming into Kansas.
It’s worth noting that Gordon hasn’t cracked the top-10 in any of the three down force tracks yet.
Brad Keselowski is an interesting choice this week in his Penske Ford. He won at Kansas in 2010 and ran well in the final stages at Texas last week. Keselowski also ran well at Las Vegas with a third-place finish. He’s third best at Kansas with an average finish of 9.8.
Matt Kenseth is on a streak of three straight top-5 finishes at Kansas, including his win last fall. Now with his switch to a Joe Gibbs Toyota, and a Vegas win already in his pocket, he should be considered one of the favorites to win this week, right up there with the favored Busch.
As for Busch himself, he’s got everything aligned in his favor this week except history. In 11 Kansas starts, he doesn’t have any top-5 finishes. He’s averaged a 21st-place finish over those races with his best finish of seventh coming in 2006.
Between the roll Busch is on, which stems from the Chase last year, and the edge Toyota has in the Gen-6 car, we can throw history out the window. But it’s still knowledge to keep tucked away that might help sway you into a driver to win with better odds.
And that brings us back to Truex Jr. Before last season’s runner-ups at Kansas, he had never had a top-10 finish there. But of all the drivers, his 25-to-1 odds make him a driver to at least put a little something on.
The last Truex win on any track came six years ago, which might scare a few away, but let’s hope for a feel-good story on Sunday with a driver that has a great car, some success on the track, and most of all, is well deserving of finally having a great moment.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].