Martin Truex Jr. Wins Ho-Hum Dover, but Chase Drama Now Ramps Up

Monte Dutton@@monteduttonFeatured ColumnistOctober 3, 2016

Runner-up Kyle Busch said Martin Truex Jr. was "off in his own zip code" at Dover
Runner-up Kyle Busch said Martin Truex Jr. was "off in his own zip code" at DoverMel Evans/Associated Press

The first segment of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup is in the books. Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. has won two of the first three races. The latest, at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, was a bit on the tepid side. So, in general, was the first segment.

Patience, please. That's the plan. The current format, now in its third year, is designed to provide a gradual increase in heat. The Chase has been simmering. Over the remaining weeks, as the field of eligible champions is winnowed down from 12 to eight to four, the excitement will increase.

It couldn't happen any other way.

Jimmie Johnson led 90 laps but finished seventh.
Jimmie Johnson led 90 laps but finished seventh.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

At a Friday media conference, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said: "It's so hard to make everybody happy. It actually frustrates me to hear that response [that it's been less than exciting]. It's just tough to make everybody happy."

On the same day, one of the lower Chase qualifiers, Jamie McMurray, said: "It's like trying to have a good finish in every single race. You're not going to have that, and that's what makes the exciting finishes so great. I guess it's circumstantial."

Also circumstantial was McMurray's departure. Engine failure consigned him to last place, and he failed to qualify for Round 2, which begins at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night. Also banished to the ranks of those eliminated from title contention were three-time champion Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson and long shot Chris Buescher. 

The narrowing down was just. It just wasn't particularly exciting.

Truex's average finish in the past five races is 2.6. He's won three of them.
Truex's average finish in the past five races is 2.6. He's won three of them.Mel Evans/Associated Press/Associated Press

Oh, Truex found it stimulating. He won the Chase races in Joliet, Illinois, and Dover, hiking his total to four for the season and making his third visit to Victory Lane in the past five races.

By the way, he won the series' first stop at Charlotte on May 29.

"It's just clicking," Truex said. "Honestly, I feel like all season long we've been the same team and we've done the same things. You know, I guess right now it's just our time."

Truex's Big Year
CategoryCareer2016
Wins74
Poles103
Average Finish17.212.1
Laps Led4,0511,594
Top-5 Finishes477
Top-10 Finishes13215
Starts39829
racing-reference.info

Regardless of whether or not Truex's "time" lasts long enough for him to be crowned champion, the Chase will be close. He could win each of the six races leading up to the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale on November 20 and still be deadlocked at the beginning of that race with three other drivers.

What's a man to do other than what he is already doing? Truex said:

I think that we've just got to go out there each week and try to be as prepared as we can. We're not going to change who we are. We didn't do that before the Chase started. We just got hot and we got momentum, and hopefully we don't lose it. I mean, I don't know how we got it. I don't know how to keep it. I just know that we're going to continue to approach these races the same way, and hopefully it works out for us.

Truex's Denver based team is the only one in the Chase operating outside the general area of Charlotte. It receives considerable assistance from Toyota Racing Development and its flagship, Joe Gibbs Racing. The top Gibbs driver, reigning champion Kyle Busch, couldn't catch Truex—the two combined to lead 289 out of 400 laps—so he turned to his sense of humor afterwards.

"I was just waiting to make my move," Busch said. "I had him in my sights all day long—nah, I was just kidding—I had nobody in my sights all day long. I was in my own area code, and he was off in his own zip code."

It didn't take much to advance into Round 2, which consists of races at Charlotte (Concord, North Carolina), Kansas City (Kansas, not Missouri) and Talladega (Alabama). Carl Edwards breezed into the second round comfortably even though he only finished 14th at Dover.

"I'm so grateful that we made it to this next round because now it's a 0-0 ballgame," Edwards told NBC Sports. "We did not run well these first three races. ... Now we've got to put all this behind us and go onto Charlotte."

Tangibly, the 12 contenders who remain—Truex, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Edwards, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon—are even. Intangibly, the favorite is Truex.

In the post-race media conference, an apparently disoriented, or perhaps satirical, attendee asked Truex's crew chief, Cole Pearn, if he and Truex might "do a little something different this time" at Charlotte.

Truex led 392 out of 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600, averaging a record 160.655 mph that night.

Cole Pearn talks with his driver.
Cole Pearn talks with his driver.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Perhaps Pearn bit his tongue before answering.

"Charlotte is another example," he said tactfully. "You can't get complacent and hold onto fond memories from the past or whatever. You've got to go and execute and work really hard this week."

Whoever asked the question should send Pearn flowers.

In the past five races, Truex's average finish is 2.6. He's led 581 laps, which are the same number of laps he led in the entire 2007 season and more than any other until this year.

Truex is now the favorite, but the system will keep him in check if nothing else does.

Asked "what kind of statement" his team has made so far, Truex told NBC Sports: "We're not messing around I guess. I don't know — What else can you say?"

    

Follow @montedutton on Twitter.

All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.

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