Cup Series’ Big Three Are Looking Huge

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 12 2021

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr., fought each other for the victory at Martinsville on Sunday. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Despite Joe Gibbs Racing’s domination of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, the Hall of Fame team owner believes Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske remain on par with his organization.

“I think it’s up in the air as to who you could say is the strongest team right now,” Joe Gibbs said following Martin Truex Jr.’s Martinsville victory, which made him the first driver to win two races this season. “I think it’s going to be hard-fought all year.” 

Through the season’s first eight races, those three organizations have dominated the Cup landscape. JGR drivers have three victories while Hendrick and Penske possess two each. To date, Front Row Motorsports is the only team that has managed to steal a victory from the big three.

In the driver standings, the top three organizations possess nine of the top 10 positions with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and Truex sitting first and second, respectively. Stuart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick is the only driver in the standings’ top 10 not associated with the series’ top three powerhouses. 

At Martinsville on Sunday, three JGR drivers combined to lead all but 195 of the event’s 500 laps. Hamlin dominated the event, setting the pace seven times for 276 laps. However, when the race littered with 15 caution flags for 102 laps changed to a long green-flag in the final 41 laps, the situation favored Truex.

“The reason we led so many laps is we had a lot of short runs, great starts in the middle of the race, not much green-flag racing,” Hamlin said. “When we had green-flag racing, we were fast a little of the time, not a lot of the time.

“Obviously, we were the only car that was able to take the lead on the restart on the outside multiple times. Sometimes the cards are dealt to you where you’ve got a short-run car and at the end of the race it comes down to a 40-lap run. That’s just outside your window of greatness.

“The last run was kind of a worst case scenario because we had new tires and no cycles, where during the middle of the race we kept cycling our tires because of the cautions. It was the worst case scenario, because it really exploited … our setup and our weakness there with 15 or so to go.”

Truex’s victories this season have occurred at tracks that play critical roles in the playoffs. The October Martinsville race determines the final four drivers that will via for the championship, while Phoenix hosts the title event. However, crew chief James Small admitted the team probably placed a “little bit less emphasis” on preparing for the tracks where they have performed well. 

“We put far more effort into the tracks we suck at,” Small said after Truex claimed his 29th career victory and his third at Martinsville. 

Small noted the team makes “small tweaks” to the car where it performs well.

“It’s so hard,” Small continued, “especially at a track like this. Not very aero-sensitive, it’s all mechanical related. You can’t afford to go out on some tangent, on some philosophy or theory or whatever. You just got to stick with what’s worked and refine that.”

Small is in his second year as Truex’s crew chief and the 2017 NASCAR champion believes this could be another banner year.

“I feel really good about our team, overall, what we can do this year,” Truex said. “Our cars are strong. Our team is strong. We’ve been together a long time. Obviously, last year James was the new piece moving to crew chief and he’s done a great job. 

“Last year, for whatever reason, it seemed like we were missing the tiniest little things. Sometimes it wasn’t even things we were doing wrong. Sometimes you feel like things aren’t meant to be, honestly. We have a great opportunity to win a lot of races. Hopefully, we can take advantage of it this year more than we did last year.”

The NASCAR Cup Series next race is Saturday at Richmond (Va.) Raceway. The Toyota Owners 400 is scheduled to be televised on Fox at 3 p.m.


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 12 2021
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