Just three weeks left to go in the marathon that is the NASCAR Cup Series season. And just 16 weeks to go until the Daytona 500.
1. Martin Truex Jr.
Truex’s performance on Sunday at Martinsville was a domination on par with his butt-whooping in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600 when he led 392 of 400 laps. And if you’re thinking that Truex is suddenly the championship favorite because of it, where in the world have you been?
All three of Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers have been at or above co-favorite status throughout the entire playoffs with the exception of a driver that we’ll get to in a moment. And it wasn’t all that long ago that Truex was the star of the first round of the playoffs.
Heck, Truex has been the star of NASCAR’s playoffs over the last four years period. Truex has won 23 of his 26 career wins since the start of the 2016 season. Fourteen of those wins have come in 104 non-playoff races while nine of those wins have come in 37 playoff starts. That’s a playoff win rate of nearly 25 percent.
Truex’s win also means that JGR now has 17 wins through 33 starts in 2019 and needs just one more win to tie Hendrick Motorsports’ 2017 season for the best multi-car team season in Cup Series history.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin’s fourth-place finish was overshadowed by his kerfuffle with Joey Logano at the end of the race. And by his impression of Logano after that kerfuffle. You gotta appreciate a driver willing to imitate the driver he just tried to fight — or confront, or whatever you want to call it.
Hamlin now heads to a track where he won at in the spring with the confidence of being the most recent intermediate track winner. Most observers expected a bounceback season from Hamlin after the worst run of his career in 2018. But few expected a legitimate title run.
3. Kyle Busch
Here’s the one JGR driver who can make a claim to not being able to hold onto co-favorite status in the playoffs. Busch only gets to keep his status as a legit title challenger thanks to his regular-season excellence,
That excellence has disappeared in the playoffs and turned into simply being good. Busch has finished in the top six on three occasions but has also finished 14th or worse in the other four races. And that 14th came on Sunday at Martinsville.
Busch should be fast at Texas. A top 10 there and at Phoenix — where he won in the spring — will get him to Homestead with a title chance. But will he think he’ll have a title chance if he gets to Homestead without a victory over the next two races?
4. Joey Logano
Consider Logano’s last four weeks: His car had to go to the garage before the green flag flew at Dover. He was involved in a crash at Talladega and somehow finished 11th in a car that had more tape than a kid trying to win a Halloween costume contest dressed as a mummy. He finished 17th at Kansas after a late-race crash and had to cling to a spot in the third round over the last couple laps.
And then on Sunday at Martinsville he had contact with Hamlin, spun his car around and then somehow still finished eighth. Maybe Texas and Phoenix will be a little more straightforward. After all, Logano is still positioned to be the best of the rest.
5. Kevin Harvick
Harvick finished seventh on Sunday and didn’t score any stage points. His 30 points were 12 fewer than Logano despite finishing a spot ahead of the 2018 champion.
Harvick was asked after the race how encouraged he was about that seventh. His team had made the car a lot faster over the second half of the race.
“It’s just another race,” Harvick said. “That’s the same thing I’ve been saying for 32 weeks.”
Harvick’s going to need two races that aren’t just another race over the next three if he wants to get his second championship.
6. Ryan Blaney
Blaney finished fifth and scored the second-most points of any driver. But he’s still 15 points behind Logano for fourth thanks to the deficit he faced after the points reset at the beginning of the third round.
Our car was really good [at Texas] in the first race this year,” Blaney said. “We were leading when we blew up, so looking forward to going there. We had a lot of stage points today, which is nice. We just need to keep ourselves in the hunt That’s what you’ve got to do.”
7. Kyle Larson
Martinsville is one of Larson’s worst tracks. He finished ninth.
"This is my second-best finish at Martinsville, so I'm really happy with that,” Larson said. “We were able to steal some stage points as well, so we probably overachieved for how we usually run at Martinsville."
Larson is 25 points back of Logano.
8. Chase Elliott
Elliott was facing a win-and-in scenario at Kansas and somehow got in without winning. Will history repeat itself? A broken axle led to a 36th-place finish at Martinsville and he’s already 44 points back of fourth place.
9. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski finished third after winning the spring race at Martinsville earlier in the season. That’s a great finish for his title hopes … oh, that’s right. It’s still crazy to think that Keselowski’s Kansas went so poorly.
10. William Byron
Byron gave Truex a run during the second stage but simply couldn’t pull ahead. It’d be fun to watch 500 laps at Martinsville with no spoilers on the cars to see how much easier passing would be.
11. Kurt Busch
Busch finished sixth after starting 25th. He’s still only 13th in the points standings thanks to that awful first round.
12. Take your pick
Clint Bowyer retired because of a track bar issue. Alex Bowman hit the wall. Aric Almirola got wrecked and said he’d race Kyle Busch hard over the next three weeks though that may be more frustration than anything substantive. Does Ryan Newman get this spot because he finished 10th?
The Lucky Dog: David Ragan finished 11th. How fitting it will be for Ragan’s last Martinsville start to be his best of his final season after he was labeled a dart without feathers in his first start at the track.
The DNF: Jimmie Johnson finished last after he was caught up in the incident between Almirola and Kyle Busch.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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