Remember way back when, following the Coca-Cola 600, when Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. were single-handedly running the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series? A combined 10 top fives, 13 top-10 finishes, eight stage wins. There was no one close to them in the points; Brad Keselowski was 77 points behind in third.
At that point, Joe Gibbs Racing was winless and would continue to be so until race 19 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch was the team’s best driver, with three stage wins and a fifth-place spot in the standings on the strength of three straight top fives.
And Jimmie Johnson looked to be well underway in his title defense. The seven-time champion had won back-to-back races at Texas and Bristol motor speedways, and despite only two other top 10s, he was eighth in the standings. Heading into the summer stretch and with two wins already in the bank, many expected the No. 48 to slow down, try some things for the playoffs and come back strong.
But not this. Four crashes over the next 12 races see Johnson 11th in the standings, and despite adding a third win at Dover International Speedway, he hasn’t finished better than 10th since. In fact, his average finish has plummeted from 14.25 over the first 12 races to 20.25 in the past 12.
Things aren’t concerning yet for the Chad Knaus-led team, but if the team doesn’t start gaining some momentum in the final two races of the regular season with only 16 playoff points to fall back on, it might be feeling quite nervous when the playoffs start in four weeks at Chicagoland Speedway.
Truex, on the other hand, has added nine stage wins to his repertoire since Memorial Day, with an additional two overall wins. He currently sits at 35 playoff points and looks to add another 15 (at least) by avoiding issues the next two weeks and winning the regular-season title. This is the strategy that is brand new this season: win races, continue to win races and don’t experiment for the playoffs.
With eliminations and playoff points carrying through nearly the entirety of the 10-race postseason, it’s the best way to make a run at the championship. Truex is playing the game to perfection, though his performance has dropped; a pair of crashes and an engine failure at Sonoma Raceway put his average finish down nearly three whole spots compared to the first half of the season.
Truex’s main competition in the beginning of the year, Larson, looks unbeatable or utterly dismal, depending on the race. Seven top-10 finishes this summer stretch look great, as do five top-two finishes, but five finishes come outside the top 20, only two of which due to crashes. A big points penalty knocked the No. 42 team way behind Truex following Kentucky Speedway, and he’s since lost another spot in the points to Busch, who despite a slow start to the season has now become the chief threat to Truex for the title.
Of all four drivers, Busch is the only one to have improved his finishing average over the past 12 races, knocking just outside the top-10 range. And reminiscent of the 2015 campaign when JGR really started to take off in the second half of the season, the team again seems poised to make a deep run into the playoffs, with Denny Hamlin and Busch in and Matt Kenseth looking decent on points.
Busch, you will recall, won the championship in that 2015 season. That one was disputed by racing purists for only coming during a partial season (Busch was injured prior to the season opener and missed 11 races), and while that likely didn’t stop Busch from savoring it, you know he’ll want to win a second, full-season title.
His performance during this stretch, compared to 2017, is similar: While he has two fewer wins, he’s scored a similar amount of top 10s (eight and seven, respectively). And with seven stage wins since Charlotte, he’s currently second in points with 20 playoff points. Not a lock for Homestead-Miami Speedway but in much better shape than others. Given Busch’s consistency and momentum, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him go toe-to-toe with Truex throughout the playoffs and into that final, winner-take-all race that he’s won before.
Following Charlotte, did anybody see that coming? Probably not. And nobody will likely see the driver prepping to put up a fight in the final 12-race stretch of the season.
The problem is, it might be too little too late. Not when Busch and Truex are facing off in what looks to be a two-man battle for the title.