Expectations in sports can be as fluid as they are fickle.
While some teams are simply happy to punch above their weight, knowing others have more resources, the top organizations are often in “championship or bust” mode. And once the playoffs arrive in sports that have them, things can change quickly.
It’s no different in NASCAR. Ryan Blaney, for instance, would probably have been overjoyed if you had visited him from several months in the future at Daytona International Speedway to reassure him that he’d make the Championship 4 for the first time — but now that he’s made it, you can bet he wants to win the title.
A NASCAR Cup Series championship was a realistic goal for Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team when the season started. He’d won one before, after all, when he was still driving for Furniture Row Racing. It’s hard to argue against the idea that Joe Gibbs Racing is better funded and generally better equipped for any kind of championship pursuit.
Perhaps even more significantly, Truex did something this year that he also did en route to his 2017 series title: He won the regular season championship, a testament to his consistency over the course of 26 races. Except for a 24th-place result in the final regular season race at Daytona, Truex also entered the postseason with momentum, racking up six consecutive top-seven results (including his third win of 2023) between New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International.
To say he and JGR should have been running for anything but a championship seems kind of ridiculous.
Of course, Truex won’t be running for anything but a fourth victory this weekend at Phoenix Raceway, and even that could be a stretch given what he and his team have done over the past nine weeks. “Debacle” isn’t too strong a description.
The Round of 16 would have sunk the No . 19 bunch immediately were it not for the points cushion that came with the regular season trophy and three wins. Truex started off with a not-so-great 18th at Darlington Raceway, which somehow turned out to be his best finish of the round.
Surely, there was reason to think things would turn around in the next three races, despite it not featuring tracks where Truex has traditionally been strong. His performance did improve … but only because there was no 36th-place washout like at Kansas Speedway.
Through six playoff races, Truex turned in an average finish of 21.3 with a best effort of 17th. Incredibly, he managed to underperform his career average at four of the sixth tracks. Truex managed to outdo his usual work at only two of his worst venues: Bristol Motor Speedway, where his 19th was better than his 20.7 average on concrete, and Talladega Superspeedway, where coming home 18th was better than his career average of 21.3.
Far from looking like a contender, Truex was instead Exhibit A for why NASCAR should consider changing its playoff rules to eliminate the playoff points that follow drivers from round to round.
Keeping Truex around for the Round of 8 was essentially a joke, but he finally broke through with a top 10 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he’s often found success. After finishing 29th at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he was nearly in must-win territory at Martinsville Speedway, meaning a 12th wasn’t enough to get it done.
What went wrong during this postseason to forget? Just about everything. Truex crashed out early at Kansas thanks to a blown tire. He spun at Bristol, got caught up in a multi-car incident at Texas and blew an engine at Homestead.
Even when things out of control weren’t conspiring against them, the No. 19 team caused its own issues. At Darlington, Truex hit the wall during practice but didn’t think it was a big deal. Spoiler: It kind of was. The pit crew was slower than other playoff teams almost everywhere, and crew chief James Small made what in his own words was a “terrible decision” on a crucial pit strategy call that cost valuable stage points at Las Vegas.
These are the kinds of unforced errors that no team can afford, especially when its luck is also running bad. Maybe they could be excused for a team that had never made the playoffs, but for this bunch? They’re almost inexcusable.
That brings us back to expectations. Truex was the regular-season champ, and even if that doesn’t mean he was actually the best driver over the first 26 races (William Byron, for one, would like a word), he was the top seed going into the playoffs. In stick-and-ball terms, what he and his team just did was the equivalent of a No. 1 NBA or NHL team getting swept out in the first round.
It was the kind of fall-on-your-face performance that costs coaches and/or general managers their jobs in those sports. Whether wholesale changes are made for Truex’s team or within JGR in general remains to be seen, but there certainly needs to be some soul-searching.
As for the driver, who wavered for a while this year before committing to return in 2024, this can’t possibly sit well. Truex isn’t the type to sit around moping about anything, but he’s also not going to be the “rah-rah” cheerleader who rallies the troops. One thing he’s mastered, however, is perseverance, and he’s going to need that in abundance to bounce back in next year’s playoffs.
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