NASCAR Cup series drivers envied Martin Truex Jr.‘s position last year in the playoffs where he didn’t necessarily need to perform as well as the rest of his competition until the championship race.
Truex doesn’t have a case of playoff-point envy just yet, but his 2018 season has put him on a path to learn how the non-dominant drivers live during the postseason in the new system implemented in 2017.
He has just seven playoff points 12 races into the regular season. At this time a year ago, he had 16 and was on his way to earning 53 for the regular season.
Playoff points give drivers a cushion throughout the playoffs as they carry them through the first three rounds (and earn them through the first two rounds). Those points get added to their point total at the start of the reset of each playoff round.
While the defending Cup champion does feel he has time to earn more playoff points, he seems more focused on finding a way to match Kevin Harvick in performance.
“We would definitely like to have more than we have at this moment,” Truex said. “We had a tough stretch of races where maybe we had a chance of getting some of those.
“We’re off just a tick right now and still just trying to get dialed in.”
Harvick has five wins this year and 24 playoff points — and he would have 31 if he hadn’t been docked the seven playoff points he earned at Las Vegas because of a rear window violation. Truex has one win.
Truex ranks third in playoff points behind Harvick and Kyle Busch (17). Joey Logano also has seven playoff points.
“We’ve still got 14 races left before the playoffs start,” Truex crew chief Cole Pearn said. “That’s quite a bit of time. Hopefully we can get some good runs in and get some more cushion going in for sure.
“But if you can stay consistent once you get to the playoffs and run well, you should be fine either way. It’s definitely nicer to have them, but there’s ways to make it without them.”
Last year, Truex won races at Chicagoland and Charlotte in the playoffs — the opening races of the first and second rounds — to automatically advance to the next round. He entered the third round with 69 playoff points and advanced out of the third round with a 99-point margin on the first driver who missed the cut based on points.
“Looking back at the playoffs last year, we didn’t have to use really any of those bonus points, so we really need to focus on getting dialed in and making sure when the playoffs start, we are where we need to be,” Truex said.
Pearn said a team would love to have 60 playoffs points by the end of the regular season — the maximum points of one race.
“I don’t know that where we’re at right now whether we can make it there,” Pearn said. “We’re obviously going to have to continue to progress a lot to get there.
“But who knows? Anything can happen. For us, each and every week you try to claw and get the best result you can.”
NASCAR’s change in the rules on the spoilers and its new body scan system appears to have taken some of the advantages away from Truex. Pearn said he believes he knows the areas where the team needs to work.
“We’re going to have to find some speed, and I think our cars are capable,” Truex said. “We’ve had good speed throughout the season at points.
“We just haven’t been as consistent as last year in finding it. I feel like the box for us is a little bit smaller.”
Also among the differences this year is the team’s new pit crew, and the adjustment to one fewer crew member on pit road has resulted in the team, at times, not as stout on pit road as the Truex crew from a year ago.
“It affected everybody, and we have a new group,” Pearn said. “They’ve been plugging away and I’m really proud of the progress they’ve made.
“Obviously we had some races get away from us earlier on, but the last few weeks, they’ve been really good and they’ve started to find that groove and comfort level with each other.”
One thing Pearn has tried not to do is compare his team with Harvick, which has been on an incredible roll as everyone is chasing him. Pearn feels like the team is making ground.
“When we haven’t had issues, we’ve run well,” Pearn said. “It’s not like we’ve been horrible by any means. We’ve been close. … When you look at what the 4 [of Harvick] is doing with five wins, that’s pretty insane.
“You can’t quite measure yourself to that at this point. We’ve got to try to continue to get better, and I feel like we are.”
Truex knows Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers well, since they both were at Michael Waltrip Racing at the same time. So he has a great deal of respect for what Harvick has been able to do this season: be where Truex was a year ago.
“They’re doing a great job right now … and they’re hitting on all cylinders,” Truex said. “They’ve got a great balanced race car and they’re doing all the right things.
“I feel like we’re just a step behind that. But we’ll keep digging hard and fighting, and we’ve got a good bunch, too, and we’ll figure some things out.”