What if I told you 10 years ago Martin Truex Jr. would be the best short track driver in the sport? You'd probably laugh me out of the room. After all, Truex had just one NASCAR Cup Series win by that point, nearly six full-time seasons into his career.
Yet even after Truex rose to prominence, winning the championship with Furniture Row Racing in 2017, success on this track type proved elusive. The bullrings of Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville Speedway were often an Achilles' Heel of missed opportunities. Some wondered if the mild-mannered Truex was aggressive enough: a bump-and-run by Joey Logano, for example, to win Martinsville in 2018 may have kept him from back-to-back titles.
But something shifted for Truex once he got the monkey off his back, snapping a 0-for-80 short track drought at Richmond in April 2019. Since then, he's won three of the last five at this place, including Saturday night's 400-lap edition on the 20th anniversary of September 11th.
"What a day to win on," Truex said after the race. "It reminds you of the honor and privilege it is to get to come out here and do this."
It's also his most impressive short track win yet. Truex was penalized for jumping the start, his fender inching ahead after teammate Denny Hamlin spun the tires. Seconds into the race, the No. 19 Toyota driver went from sitting on the front row to 37th.
No problem; it took less than 60 laps for Truex to work back inside the top 10. He wound up eighth after stage one, led chunks of the race after lap 269 and built an eight-second edge after the final pit stop.
"I was like, this is ridiculous," Truex said of a penalty even teammate Hamlin agreed was the right call. "But yeah, I got over it fairly quickly … [I figured] I'm already last now, so there's nothing I can do except for go forward."
What a push back to the front, cementing his status as the sport's best on short tracks. The win total during the past dozen races leaves no doubt: it's Truex six, Brad Keselowski two, and a handful of others with one each.
"Honestly, nothing really clicked," Truex claims of his recent success. "It wasn't like one thing we did. It was just kind of a work in progress more than anything. Honestly, I've always felt good at this racetrack and had some really good runs years ago, in other cars with other teams."
The difference now is Truex closes the deal. And what's the next short track on the schedule? The penultimate race of the year at Martinsville, of course. This strong playoff start (add a third at Darlington last week) should launch Truex right back into the championship conversation for 2021.
Green: Joe Gibbs Racing
At points during the final stage at Richmond, JGR had their teams 1-2-3-4. They wound up 1-2-3-9, leading 326 of 400 laps in an impressive all-around performance. Truex's win leaves them the only organization to clinch spots in the Round of 12 already; Hamlin's already in after his Darlington victory.
Yellow: Kevin Harvick
He still sits winless after a career-best nine victories last year. But you have to give credit to crew chief Rodney Childers and the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 organization, posting back-to-back top-10 finishes to pull this unlikely 16th seed a whopping 25 points above the playoff cutline.
Red: Alex Bowman
April's Richmond winner didn't have it Saturday night, never leading and falling a lap off the pace in 12th. That would have been fine if not for last week's wreck that left this driver clinging to the edge of the cutline (he's tied for Kurt Busch for the final spot in the Round of 12). Bowman said it best himself: "Darlington is just on me… when you put yourself in a hole like that, it's tough to overcome."
Speeding Ticket: Kyle Busch
It's a rare back-to-back appearance for Busch in this section, mixed messages sent from a Richmond race that could have ended in victory lane. Busch was in front heading to the final green-flag pit stop before picking up a penalty for speeding on pit road. Ninth position was a nice recovery but left seven previous points on the table, potentially more if Busch won.
It's the second straight mistake for him in a Richmond race; a commitment line violation in April cost him a shot at victory then. Days after a $50,000 fine for last week's incident, nearly hitting bystanders as he turned into the Darlington garage after his wreck, it's not a good look for a No. 18 team facing potential playoff elimination while their JGR teammates are breathing easy.
Kurt Busch had the only serious wreck of the night when a left rear tire went down on his No. 1 Chevrolet. Bubba Wallace also had nowhere to go as that Goodyear broke loose, landing right in Bubba's path entering turns 1 and 2.
Wallace wound up crashing later on, perhaps from something breaking after running over that giant piece of rubber. He ended the night 12 laps off the pace in 32nd.
Honorable mention: Some fans are calling out the inconsistency of Busch's speeding penalty versus this non-call of Hamlin's tire rolling away on their final stop. Look at this video and make your own judgment call