In 2019, a faulty pit stop in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway played a deciding role as Martin Truex Jr. came up short in his quest for a second NASCAR Cup Series championship. In 2020, another pit road issue proved to be his undoing late in the season's penultimate race at Martinsville Speedway. The miscue zapped Truex's chance for a win-and-get-in Championship 4 advancement.
The circumstances weren't identical — at Homestead in 2019, his team bolted new tires on the wrong sides of the car, while a brutal vibration due to loose lug nuts forced him to pit road at Martinsville in 2020 — but the results proved to be the same. Truex now starts the 2021 season still seeking to be a two-time champion at NASCAR's highest level.
As Truex and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team looked back on 2020, there were deficiencies in the Toyota team's regular-season and postseason performance that became glaring issues as the weather turned colder and playoff eliminations began. "[We were] definitely capable of a lot more than we've achieved," Truex said last fall after the Martinsville race.
First on the list was the drastic drop in race wins. Truex won just once last season (taking the checkered flag in the June race at Martinsville), visiting Victory Lane six fewer times than in 2019. It was the first time since 2015 that Truex won only one race in a season.
Truex also saw a significant drop in total stage wins from the previous year. In 2020, the New Jersey driver won just five stages after taking nine in 2019. The drop in race wins and stage wins made advancement through each round of the playoffs a much taller task for Truex because it meant a severe drop in playoff points.
Truex also stumbled despite a unique advantage. With qualifying canceled and race lineups built by points standings and later a scoring matrix for all but five races, Truex actually enjoyed an improved average starting position by more than three positions year over year. But unlike in 2019, when Truex averaged a gain of 3.3 positions throughout each race, Truex ended 2020 by falling an average of 2.1 positions per event.
From a distance, it's tempting to assume that Truex's decreased production was simply the result of an unexpected offseason change — the abrupt retirement of Truex's longtime crew chief Cole Pearn, likely the most coveted crew chief in the garage. JGR chose James Small — long a teammate and crew member on Pearn's NASCAR teams — as Pearn's replacement.
But after Truex won the June Martinsville event, he shot down any insinuation that Small was a hindrance to the team's progress. "My relationship with James and the way we interact has been real similar to how I had a relationship with Cole. That's because we all worked together before," Truex said. "That's really made the transition easy for me. It's made me easily have confidence in his abilities and what he can do."
Small and Truex were left intact as a crew chief-driver combination for the 2021 season, while teammate Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens were realigned by JGR officials. It's clear that all parties — including Truex, Small, and the competition executives at JGR — see unrealized potential remaining in the No. 19. If it's there, Truex will need to convert more wins early and often this season if he wants to become the 17th driver in Cup history to score multiple titles.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 8/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)