Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, knows all about the Big 3. From 2017 to 2019, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex combined to win 51 of 108 NASCAR Cup Series races. The trio peaked in 2018, posting a 56% win percentage and leading almost 4,500 laps before Joey Logano upended them all and took the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
As Truex pulled into victory lane Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, the first driver to win two races this season, he unveiled some updated Big 3 branding for 2021. Instead of three drivers, version 2.0 features the top team from each manufacturer sharing space atop the mountain.
So much for the sport's Cinderella start at Daytona (Michael McDowell who?). During nearly an entire stage at Martinsville, Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota), Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) and Team Penske (Ford) took up the top 11 spots in the field. Sitting 12th? Matt DiBenedetto, driving for a Penske-aligned, single-car team.
Some tire strategy, late-race accidents and Ryan Blaney's faulty pit stop shook up the running order late. But when all was said and done, Truex prevailed while the trio of aforementioned organizations led 477 of 500 laps. At least there's parity among the elite: Truex's JGR team now has three wins this season, edging out Penske and Hendrick's two apiece.
"I think it's going to be hard-fought all year," said owner Joe Gibbs after putting all four of his cars inside the top 10. "I think it's up in the air as to who you could say is the strongest team right now."
Truex might beg to differ after posting wins at Martinsville and Phoenix Raceway, two tracks that will be raced on in the playoffs this fall. After starting his career 0-for-80 on short tracks, Truex has won five of his last 11, this time besting five-time Martinsville winner and teammate Denny Hamlin in the closing laps.
"After not having success at a track, it comes to a point where you really don't know what you need to do," Truex said. "It's a real challenge. I've just been lucky to be with really good people, have that communication, that belief in one another that you can make the [car] do the things you want it to do."
Hamlin and Truex are now first and second in points, respectively, with Penske's Logano and Hendrick's Kyle Larson hot on their heels. Expect plenty of momentum changes among this group as six of the Big 3's 11 teams have already secured a postseason spot with a win.
Green: Denny Hamlin. The downside? Leading a race-high 276 laps only to see Truex steal that coveted Grandfather Clock down the stretch. The good? Seven top-five runs in eight races, no finishes worse than 11th and a point lead so large (+76) he could sit out Richmond Raceway next week and still hold onto it.
Yellow: Ryan Blaney. A total of 157 laps led turned into window dressing when a tire hose dragged out of his Martinsville stall. Finishing 11th was a nice recovery following the penalty, but old habits in blown races are hard to break.
Red: Kyle Busch. When your JGR teammates are riding circles around you, a 10th at Martinsville just doesn't cut it for the two-time NASCAR champion. He has more spins in the last two races (three) than top-five finishes thus far in 2021. Busch also has just seven laps led this season, the lowest total through eight races in his 17-year Cup career.
Speeding Ticket: NASCAR Safety Crew. A multi-car accident on lap 387 sparked by contact between Chris Buescher and Kyle Busch eliminated several cars at once while putting emergency services at Martinsville into overdrive.
Daniel Suarez was critical of the NASCAR response time.
"I was a bit surprised that the safety people took a long time to get to my car," Suarez said afterward. "I tried to make sure everything was good to stop the fire, but for some reason, they just weren't stopping it."
The issue for NASCAR was simple: Suarez drove a full quarter-mile away from the wreck before his fiery ending. The fire trucks went to the scene of the crime first, but someone needed to keep tabs on the No. 99 and follow suit.
Down in the sport's Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding put the bumper on Joe Graf Jr. in a move that splintered his former ride, the No. 07, into pieces. Graf responded by trying to splinter Gaulding in two after the race.
NASCAR talked to both drivers before both took to the same radio station (on Sirius XM) to express their displeasure with one another.
"He raced me like a dog," Gaulding argued, claiming he "100 percent" wrecked Graf on purpose. "I'm tired of dealing with his nonsense. He's a clown."
The driver used to be with Graf's team, SS Green Light racing, before funding dissipated at the end of 2019. Who came in to replace him, with funding? Why Graf, of course, whose social media feed fired back.
Expect another flareup in the weeks to come.