Martin Truex Jr. had one of his best NASCAR Cup Series runs this season at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon (June 7). Unfortunately for Truex, it did not result in a victory, but the third-place run was his first top five of 2020. Through the first 10 races, he remains winless, a surprising statistic given his strength over the last few seasons.
It was almost inevitable the performance of the No. 19 team would be under a microscope this year. During the offseason, Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, shockingly announced he was stepping away from NASCAR. Pearn and Truex had competed together for the previous five seasons, teaming up to become one of the best driver/head wrench combinations in modern NASCAR history.
In four years with Furniture Row Racing and one year at Joe Gibbs Racing, the duo won the 2017 series championship and 24 races together. This run of success came after Truex won only twice in his first nine seasons of full-time Cup competition. Following Pearn’s departure, many wondered if the driver left behind would regress without his most successful crew chief on the pit box.
Truex’s lack of wins 10 races into the season is noticeable, but it does not necessarily indicate that the performance of the No. 19 team is slipping. In his five years with Pearn, Truex never had a season where he earned multiple wins in the first 10 races. Three times, the duo scored one win through the first 10 events; twice, they didn’t win at all. Even in seasons like 2017 and 2019, when he won eight and seven races, respectively, Truex failed to rack up victories early in the year.
Truex is also in good shape in terms of overall points. After a rough start to the season, he was 15th in the standings at the time of NASCAR’s pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he and new crew chief James Small have climbed to fifth, aided by winning both stages at Atlanta on Sunday. The race got away from Truex when Kevin Harvick took control of the lead and drove away from everyone. Nevertheless, the No. 19 team held on for that third-place finish, by far its best result of the season.
If we are going to measure the combination of Truex and Small against Truex and Pearn, we will have to wait to get the most accurate results. Truex and Pearn typically did most of their damage late in the year when they had their most productive seasons. Those late, high-octane playoff runs were what often turned good years into championship-caliber ones.
Last season, Truex earned his first win in the ninth race of the year. By the end of June, he had won three more times. But it was in the playoffs that the No. 19 team really turned up the heat. In the 10-race postseason, Truex earned three wins, five top fives and nine top 10s. His only finish worse than seventh was a 26th at Talladega Superspeedway, a race where he got swept up in the Big One. And those five top fives? All of them were either a first or second-place run. Of course, one of those seconds was to teammate Kyle Busch, whose Homestead-Miami Speedway victory denied Truex the championship in the season finale. But even though Truex came up short of the big trophy, he and Pearn did a fantastic job together and put themselves in position to win.
In 2017, nobody could stop Truex and Pearn, but even that was another year where they saved their best for last. Through the first 10 races of that season, Truex had one win, two top fives and six top 10s. Those were all respectable numbers, but they were just a teaser of what was coming. The Furniture Row Racing No. 78 reeled off three more wins in the regular season, then proceeded to obliterate the competition in the playoffs. When the dust had settled, Truex had four wins and nine top fives in 10 races. The only blemish was, once again, Talladega.
Just as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus had done before them, Truex and Pearn figured out a way to elevate their game when it mattered most. Despite building up a mountain of playoff points in preparation for the postseason, the No. 78 team never really needed them to advance through playoff rounds. Truex was just overwhelmingly fast at the end of 2017 in a way he was not at the beginning of the season.
So if Truex and Small aren’t winning now, it doesn’t mean much. Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole has not shown the dominant speed it had at the end of last year. The team’s only wins so far are courtesy of Denny Hamlin’s last-gasp Daytona 500 victory and rain-shortened Darlington Raceway triumph. But, even with so few wins across the board, all of JGR’s drivers left Atlanta above the playoff cutline. Three of them left among the top 10 in points, with Truex leading the charge.
Of course, Truex still does not have Pearn, but he should not have concern, either. History suggests that this Cup Series champion is just getting warmed up. He and Small will not stay shut out of victory lane for much longer.