Triple Hot Take: NASCAR Federated Auto Parts 400

Martin Truex Jr. makes his case as this year's championship favorite

The Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway turned into Joe Gibbs Racing’s personal playground. The Toyota team pulled off a 1-2-3-4 finish for the first time in their history while Martin Truex Jr. earned a second straight playoff win.

 

Here are three quick takeaways from the final Saturday night short track showdown of the season.

 

ONE: Martin Truex Jr. is in position for one of the best three-year stretches in NASCAR history.

Truex has been lights out, trouncing the competition by going two-for-two to start the postseason. Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he overcame a mediocre 24th-place qualifying effort, a slow early pit stop that cost him track position and contact with Kurt Busch.

 

This week? He lost the lead on pit road to Kyle Busch, then Brad Keselowski. He got it back only to get spun out by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. But years of bad breaks on short tracks for Truex were no match for a long green-flag run. He blew by Busch 55 laps later, then cruised to victory for a season sweep at the same track where Spingate threatened to end his NASCAR career just six years earlier.

 

The win was Truex’s league-leading sixth of the season; six more playoff points leapfrogged him over teammate Busch for the most in the series. That puts him in prime position for a third straight Championship 4; matching his career-best total of eight Cup wins in a year seems well within reach.

 

Keep in mind Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and company are doing it all in their first year after switching teams. They have a NASCAR high 18 wins since the start of 2017 even though their previous organization, Furniture Row Racing, shut down in the middle of this stretch. They won the title in ’17 as a de facto single-car effort; in their last 100 races, they’ve earned a top-5 finish 51% of the time.

 

Those numbers put him in exclusive territory, punch-for-punch with Jimmie Johnson’s title runs from 2006-10 and Jeff Gordon’s mid-1990s dominance of the series. Gordon collected 33 wins and two titles from 1996-98; Johnson earned 24 wins and three titles from 2007-09.

 

But those were accomplished under different formats; both Hendrick Motorsports drivers also had the same team, sponsorship and consistency around them. You could argue no one’s had this level of success with more adjustments and obstacles to overcome than Truex.

 

TWO: Ryan Newman is rapidly developing into this year’s postseason Cinderella story.

It seems like a longshot for Newman, winless in his first year with Roush Fenway Racing, to make it all the way to the Championship 4. He squeaked into the postseason as the 16th and final seed; just four points separated him and Daniel Suarez after the regular-season finale.

 

But Newman has also been here before. Back in 2014, he rode a season of just five top-five finishes all the way to the runner-up spot in the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. To accomplish that in 2019 would be even crazier; he’s just got one top-5 finish in the past two years of Cup Series competition.

 

Yet a 10th and a sixth-place performance to start has elevated Newman in position to make the next round. At times Saturday night, a No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford team that has spent years nowhere close to the front was suddenly the best car outside the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Newman now controls his own destiny with a cushion heading into perhaps his weakest type of track: a road course.

 

“I’m proud of our finish, I’m proud of the teamwork,” Newman said afterward. “Fighting hard, sixth place is all we had tonight but we’ll come back swinging again.”

 

The critics have spent most of the year doubting this RFR outfit. But advancing a round could make Newman and this group one of just a handful of Ford teams left standing to challenge the JGR Toyotas.

 

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said about the doubters. “I just try real hard and they just try real hard on this team. We’re definitely making some gains and we’ll just keep working on it.”

 

THREE: Clean and caution-free at Richmond? That’s not what short track racing is about.

Richmond, despite being a ¾-mile oval, often drives more like an intermediate than a short track. Multiple grooves give drivers ample room to pass and reasonable tire wear means long portions of the race can run caution-free.

 

But that wasn’t a good look for the sport one week after Chase Elliott was among those who spoke out on how difficult it is to rub fenders. The defining moment of the playoffs thus far is Kurt Busch’s flat tire at Vegas after just the tiniest of bumps on a restart. In this copycat business, it’s led to limited aggression from a number of playoff drivers playing it safe in order to survive and advance.

 

Add in Toyota’s dominance, a 1-2-3-4 finish for JGR in the Cup ride (plus a manhandling of the field by Christopher Bell in the Xfinity race the night before) and Richmond failed to meet expectations. Richmond should take a lesson from Bristol and how narrowing the groove a bit, increasing the bumping and banging that made the track famous in the first place, regenerated excitement at one of the sport’s iconic short tracks.

 

That excitement is now missing from Richmond despite a beautiful renovation to make attending the races there more fan-friendly. There’s enough 1.5-mile cookie cutters in NASCAR where drivers have way too much room to maneuver. The short tracks like Richmond need to be a place where contact is not only acceptable but a necessary part of racing competitively there.

 

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

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