Martin Truex Jr. has been playing with fire throughout the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but so far he hasn’t been burnt.
The driver of the No 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hopes that good-luck trend will continue in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course.
To stave off elimination in the final race of the Round of 12, however, Truex may have to break another trend – five Playoff races with a best finish of 17th and an average result of 21.6.
In five starts at the Charlotte Road Course, which debuted in 2018, Truex has a best finish of seventh (twice), but his last two races on the 2.32-mile, 17-turn circuit have ended with results of 29th and 17th, respectively.
Truex may have to improve on those numbers if he hopes to advance to the Round of 8.
He is sixth in the Playoff standings, 17 points ahead of ninth-place Tyler Reddick, who has been the top road course racer in the Cup Series since NASCAR introduced its Next Gen car last season.
Relying heavily on the 36 Playoff points he accumulated during the regular season, Truex survived the first round of the postseason despite crashing out of the Kansas Speedway event in last place.
The good news for Truex is that one of his three victories this season came on the technical road course at Sonoma Raceway.
Indeed, the 43-year-old New Jersey driver is an adept road racer, with four wins at Sonoma and one at Watkins Glen.
Given the tightness of the Playoff competition, however, Truex acknowledges that it’s difficult to find an edge.
“Ever since we went to the NextGen car, everything has been closer, and it makes it challenging, for sure,” Truex said. “It’s harder to find an advantage. It’s harder to run at the front every week, consistently.
“Everything is tighter, closer together, less room for error – and you really have to be on top of things. The points situation is the same as every other race. It’s really, really hard to be at the front all of the time, and this weekend we just need a solid day to hopefully get us through with some good tracks for us coming up.”
Reddick, who has finished second and eighth in his last two starts at the track, enters the Bank of America ROVAL 400 just two points behind eighth-place Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski will try to maintain his tenuous hold on a Round of 8 berth, but the driver of the No 6 RFK Racing Ford has only one finish better than 14th on the Charlotte Road Course (fifth in 2019).
In fact, Keselowski has never won a Cup Series race on a road course. The same is true of fellow Playoff competitors Chris Buescher and Bubba Wallace. Buescher is fifth in the standings, 19 points ahead of Reddick, while Wallace in 10th must rally from nine points below the current cut line for the next round.
CRUNCH TIME AT CHARLOTTE FOR NASCAR XFINITY SERIES PLAYOFF
Justin Allgaier and John Hunter Nemechek already have qualified for the Round of 8 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs, thanks to their respective victories at Bristol and Texas. Cole Custer has also secured his spot in the next round on points.
Regular-season champion Austin Hill and Chandler Smith enjoy relatively comfortable margins above the current cut line – 44 points and 32 points, respectively.
Jeb Burton, Josh Berry and Sam Mayer likely need to win Saturday’s Drive for the Cure 250 presented by BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course – the elimination race for the Round of 12.
With the agendas of the above drivers well established, the suspense shifts to the battle around the bubble involving eighth-place Daniel Hemric and ninth-place Parker Kligerman. Hemric, the 2021 series champion, holds a one-point lead over his closest pursuer.
Both drivers are accomplished road racers, but where Hemric has a pair of third-place finishes at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, Kligerman has never raced there in an Xfinity Series car. In his lone outing at the track – in a Cup Series car fielded by Gaunt Brothers – Kligerman started 40th and finished 26th.
In two of his last three road course starts this season, however, Kligerman has finished second and fourth, respectively. Hence, there’s no lack of confidence on the part of the Big Machine Racing driver.
“I’m sure we can go score points in both stages and be in contention to win the race again,” said Kligerman, who gained ground with a second-place finish September 23 at Texas. “I think we’re in a great spot; we’ve got a ton of momentum.”
Though there’s no former Charlotte Road Course winner in the field for Saturday’s race, Hemric drives for Kaulig Racing, which has won the last four races there, in the person of AJ Allmendinger.
As a fulltime Cup driver this season, Allmendinger isn’t eligible to compete in a Xfinity Playoff race, but Kaulig has enlisted sports car standout Jordan Taylor to make his second start of the season for the organisation. Taylor started sixth and finished 27th at Portland earlier this year.