The streak has ended at seven.
Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief James Small became the first NASCAR Cup Series tandem to earn multiple wins this season, but it took eight races to get there, with a triumph in Sunday’s BlueEmu 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“I don’t know about relief,” Truex said. “It’s exciting to be here with two wins at this point in the season, compared to last year. It’s always good. You always want to do better than the previous year. Having two wins this early is great. It’s good for points. It’s good for Playoff points.”
It’s good for simply making the playoffs, too.
Given the unique trajectory of the 2021 campaign, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team became the first to ensure that they have actually qualified for the Round of 16.
Of course, that’s barring a severe circumstance, which there have been no shortage of these days.
The point is that there is still a likelihood that there could be more winners than available playoff spots over the next five months leading to the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
Consider the winners and the non-winners through eight races.
Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. (2)
You’ll immediately recognize that Denny Hamlin isn’t on the non-winners list.
Technically, since he is the current championship leader, he occupies a provisional playoff spot regardless of how many winners there are this season.
There could be 16 different winners, but the one with the fewest points would not make the cut if a winless Hamlin were to claim the regular season championship.
By the way, what a championship lead it is at the moment. Hamlin leads Truex by 76 points over Truex, the largest Cup Series points advantage through eight races since 2018 when NASCAR first implemented the stage racing format.
Hamlin has a 4.5 average finish and three playoff points.
That’s to say you have to imagine the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team is going to win one of the next 18 races, right?
“The way we’re running, we can win any given week,” Hamlin said. “We’ve just gotten beat by one or two cars each and every week that have just hit the setup a little bit better than we did.
“It’s hard to complain. I don’t know what the record is for most points scored in eight races, but I think we pretty much got to be there (laughter). We don’t finish any worse than third in every stage, obviously we’re finishing in the top three or four every race. … There’s nothing to say we can’t win the next three races in a row.”
Well, Truex has won two of the last three races at Richmond, where they’re going next weekend and finished second there in September. He’s also won the past two short track races at Phoenix and Martinsville.
Maybe this will be the dominant force we’ve all been waiting for to break out of the parity pack.
“I feel really good about our team (and) what we can do this year,” Truex said. “Our cars are strong. Our team is strong. We’ve been together a long time.
“Obviously last year James was the new piece moving to crew chief, but, man, he’s done a great job. Last year, for whatever reason, seemed like we were missing the tiniest little things. Sometimes it wasn’t even things we were doing wrong. Sometimes you feel like things aren’t meant to be, honestly. …
“We have a great opportunity to win a lot of races. Hopefully we can take advantage of it this year more than we did last year.”
After Richmond comes Talladega and perhaps another shock superspeedway winner like McDowell, who by the way, hasn’t show himself to be a fluke playoff contender with four finishes inside the top-20. There’s also five other road courses races remaining in the regular season, presenting even more chances for surprise and intrigue.
There’s also the parts freeze for the current car in advance of the Next-Gen debut next season.
Meanwhile, surprise and intrigue is the best way to describe the trials and trials and tribulations of Stewart-Haas Racing who remain collectively winless as well.
Kevin Harvick might be doing his best driving job since his days of getting 2-3 wins a year by the end of his Richard Childress Racing tenure.
Stewart-Haas has been challenged like no other organization by the modifications to inspection, specifically the rear-end template that has replaced the optical scanning station on that section of the car, costing the team numerous ticks of rear downforce.
You have to imagine they’ll figure it out by the summer and be ready to contend for wins, too.
This is all been a long-winded way of saying that not much has been uncovered, determined or decided through the first eight races — a diverse gamut that has included a superspeedway, road course, a smooth intermediate, two abrasive intermediates, a dirt track, one-mile and a half-mile.
That’s a large part of the early season parity, too.
With the current playoff format, it’s important to collect wins and stage wins for the playoff points they accrue, but there’s still a pathway to the Championship Race even without it.
Consider last year that Elliott entered the playoffs with just two wins before winning three of the final five races to earn his fist championship.
“Winning is a crucial part to the playoffs,” Elliott said. “It doesn’t guarantee you anything as you go along.”
Just ask Harvick.
“But it sure does hedge your bet at having a successful playoff run if you have wins in the bank,” Elliott added. ” I want to be on that side of the fence when that rolls around rather than in the opposite position.”
That’s where Small is at after leading Truex to two wins in the first eight races.
“It’s definitely nice,” Small said. “It’s definitely better than looking like a pack of losers. It’s good. Hopefully we can just continue this trend now.
“As we all know, it’s all about bonus points and getting through those rounds. It’s definitely nice to have won at two of the most important tracks. There’s plenty more we need to knock off and get better at to make sure we make a really good run at it later in the year.”
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