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Intermediate tracks key as Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. battle for regular-season title
Halfway through the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, 69% through the regular season, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. are offset by one point.
The lead, currently held by Larson, may change in the eight races remaining before the postseason begins Sept. 17 at Chicago. It would have at Kentucky had Larson not made 90 green flag passes to rally through the field twice to finish second as Truex romped to a third win of the season.
Numbers will continue to define this intriguing contest for emerging title contender Larson and Truex, a driver trying to exploit the prime of his career.
Truex has already amassed 28 playoff bonus points to use throughout the playoffs. Larson has 13. He has a 100-point lead over third-place and winless Kyle Busch. And don’t forget there are 15 bonus points to the regular season champion, with the second-place driver, almost certainly Truex or Larson, receiving 10.
But the most important number in relation to the rest of the season may be five, the number of 1.5-mile tracks remaining in the season. And as much as Truex crew chief Cole Pearn doesn’t want his No. 78 Furniture Row team pigeon-holed as intermediate specialists, its success at the type of track that makes up 11 of 36 Cup races and half of the playoffs is nothing to begrudge. Because it has to make everyone else nervous — especially if Truex continues to accumulate the wins that have eluded him the past few seasons because of strategy calls or misfortune.
Larson and Truex have battled for most of this season, and figure to be the only logical contenders for the regular season title. Larson has been prolific on 1.5-milers, too, finishing second at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Texas and Kentucky this season. Truex though, has led 688 laps at 1.5-mile this season though, Larson seven. A bump from Larson helped launch Truex away from Busch on an overtime restart at Kentucky, taking the sting out of Truex losing a 15-second lead.
“Wish we could have competed with Martin, but he was obviously extremely fast today,” Larson said. “We all have some work to do to keep up with him.”
Undoubtedly being strong everywhere is a more sustainable strategy — Truex has also won at Pocono (2.5 miles), Dover (1 mile) and Darlington (2 miles) since moving to Furniture Row in 2014 — and speaks to the overall competence of a team. But seven-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson has made a Hall of Fame career in part out of mastering what the schedule has put before him: numerous intermediate tracks.
All three of Truex's victories this season came on 1.5-mile tracks — sweeping all three stages at Las Vegas and Kentucky and winning the May race at Kansas — and his average finish on those types of tracks this season is 3.7. While whatever playoff points Truex and Larson take into the postseason should serve as a hedge against disaster and a ticket deep into the bracket, wins will still matter for advancement. So having Chicago, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas and Homestead among the final 10 races before the 2018 schedule shuffle takes away a 1.5-miler is a boon.
Pearn downplayed the notion, saying, “I look at our performances last year, I always feel like we do really well in the early section of the mile-and-a-halfs and then maybe not quite as good come Chase time,” but Truex won at Chicago last fall and in his career at Furniture Row has produced representative if not better finishes the second time through the 1.5-mile playoff gauntlet.
Everyone has to be something. And if Truex and Pearn are the current masters of the intermediates, that’s plenty.