Missing the NASCAR playoffs is a ‘tough pill to swallow’

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Martin Truex Jr got out of his damaged car and watched as Austin Dillon celebrated at the finish line just feet away from him.

Truex could do nothing but stare into the distance. For the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, Sunday afternoon (Aug. 28) at Daytona International Speedway was nothing to celebrate.

The 42-year-old veteran found himself eliminated from the playoffs late in the race despite finishing the regular season fourth in points. Truex, sitting above the playoff cutoff line before the 400-mile event, dropped out of the top 16 in points after Dillon won his first race of 2022 at Daytona’s 2.5-mile speedway.

He missed his shot at another title by just three points.

“It’s frustrating…” Truex said on pit road after the race. “At the end of the day, we still had a decent finish, but it doesn’t matter. It sucks. There’s no way to cover it with sugar. You race like crazy all year, you work hard and you try to do whatever it takes, and you fall three points short. It’s a pretty hard pill to swallow when I know we can do something in the playoffs.”

Despite how it ended, Truex started the day strong. In fact, he had overtaken his rival Ryan Blaney in the standings earlier in the race, a move that would have guaranteed him a postseason spot.

Blaney had been involved in a multi-car accident in the first stage on lap 32. The injured No. 12 Team Penske Ford was no longer able to keep up with the leading draft, going down several laps after sustaining heavy damage and finishing inside the 30 seconds. from being parked through NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy.

It was great news for Truex, as the New Jersey native now just had to run near the front for the rest of the race and put up enough points to catch up and overtake Blaney in the standings. Even better, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was still safe as long as there was no new winner to qualify for the playoffs.

Truex also did his job well. He finished fifth in stage one and second in stage two, earning 15 points while Blaney had zero. At the start of the final stage, it looked like the No. 19 was ready to secure his postseason spot no matter what happened up front. As the oncoming rain darkened the sky, Truex’s future in the playoffs grew brighter.

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Until lap 103.

The damaged fender on the No. 19 acted like a parachute on the Toyota for the rest of the race.

“We really did a good job, I think,” Truex said. “We had a smart race. Just wrong place, wrong time.”

From that point on, the bad news was that his JGR vehicle was stalled. However, the good news was that many others did as well.

Even after the incident, Truex was still in the race, which was more than many other drivers could say, as two more multi-car crashes occurred shortly after. What’s more, it was actually still somewhat competitive, dropping back to 11th on lap 138.

That’s when another setback came.

Rain seeped past NASCAR race control and into Turn 1, throwing cars going over 190 mph into the field at its mercy.

Most of the field was gathered in the melee and there were still few cars left. One of them was Truex.

Despite the chaos and high attrition rate, Truex remained among the lucky few to survive. Luckier still, he stayed ahead of Blaney in the standings, and with the rain increasingly drenching the track, the course was red-flagged. It looked more and more like the race was going to end early and Truex would escape the jaws of playoff disaster. Apparently Dillon was about to be crowned the winner and Blaney, not Truex, would be eliminated from the top 16.

However, after hours of delay, the rain abated and Truex’s fortunes began to take a turn for the worse. With NASCAR wanting to finish the race under green, the No. 19 team had to venture into the unknown once again. However, they had to do it with a badly damaged race car.

But there was hope. The No. 3, which restarted as the lead, was the only car left on the lead lap that could make the playoffs. As long as Dillon stayed out of victory lane, Truex was safe no matter where he ended up. As the field walked around the freshly dried track, crew chief James Small briefed his driver on where he should finish should Dillon win.

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When the race restarted with 17 laps to go, Truex resumed in fourth place and pushed Austin Cindric into the lead before he ultimately dropped out of the first draft.

Fortunately, the No. 19 still held a one-point lead over Blaney, but only by a razor-thin margin: one. If Truex could hold his position for the remaining 15 laps, he would qualify for the playoffs.

That’s when the missing fender began to take its toll on the Toyota.

“I had too much damage at the end,” Truex said. “The only chance I had with them was when they were right next to each other and they started checking the line and I was able to get to them.

“I didn’t have a right front fender. He had no idea what was going on. Our car was badly damaged.”

Truex was powerless as a line of four Fords working together loaded him up with five laps to go. He dropped four points in the process and fell definitely below Blaney in the standings.

After falling to the edge of the top 10, Truex’s nightmare scenario came true when Dillon made the winning move in Cindric’s Ford with three laps to go.

The Richard Childress Racing duo of Dillon and Tyler Reddick worked together to hold off the rest of the field to secure the No. 3 win, sealing Truex’s fate.

“I knew where I had to end up if I was going to win a new winner,” Truex said. “I just didn’t have enough speed to stay in that position. It’s as simple as that.”

It’s the first time Truex hasn’t made the Cup playoffs since 2014. Now, with 10 races remaining and no championship to chase, there’s really only one thing left to do with his three other JGR teammates vying for a championship.

“We are always there for (JGR teammates),” Truex said. “We are always good team players. We’ll probably do some testing and try to figure things out better for next year as well.

“We still have a lot to compete for. Going to win a couple of races would be amazing.”

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