More playoff drama as Martin Truex fails pre-race inspection; loses starting spot

Nine drivers will lose their starting spots and pit selections for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

Seven of them failed tech, including championship contender Martin Truex Jr., who posted the sixth fastest time in qualifying and was the only playoff driver to be hit with an inspection penalty.

More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, David Ragan (14th), Jimmie Johnson (23rd), Bubba Wallace (32nd), JJ Yeley (34th), Jeb Burton (36th) and Timmy Hill (37th) also failed inspection and will move to the rear. Paul Menard (39th) will lose his spot because of an engine change prior to tech of an impound race. Brad Keselowski (seventh) will also go to the rear due to unapproved adjustments prior to the start.

It’s also worth noting that Wallace was going to the rear regardless since he crashed his primary car during time trials.

So, positions 32-39 will now be Truex, Johnson, Menard, Ragan, Wallace, Yeley and Burton. Wallace amd Keselowski will drop to the very back during pace laps.

Back to Truex.

That’s a tough blow for a team that was already reeling from a tough second round of the playoffs, where they barely advanced into the Round of 8 amid questions that their lame duck status was finally derailing their hopes to repeat as Cup Series champions before closing shop at the end of the season.

Much like Chase Elliott, who now starts 19th after moving up two spots, Truex will find himself facing an early championship challenge once the green flag waves.

Here’s what was written about Elliott on Saturday night:

They really do have their work cut out for them because Bowyer will start second. That means as soon as the field takes the green flag, Bowyer will provisionally be above the cutline and Elliott will fall to last on the ‘as they run points.’

And while that doesn’t mean much in a vacuum, if Elliott can’t reach the top-10 by the end of the first stage and Bowyer, Logano and Kurt Busch all do, that’s also problematic for the third-year Cup star.

It doesn’t help that Martinsville could prove to be challenging to create passing opportunities due to the colder temperatures, a lack of tire falloff and stage racing that may eliminate the opportunity for drivers to get off-cycle and force an opportunity to score stage points.

And with Almirola starting fifth and Logano 11th, there is a huge opportunity for the first two stages to place Elliott into an early points deficit early into this three-race round.

And it’s been proven before that every point matters in this round. Jeff Gordon missed the championship race in 2014 by a single point. It rained at Phoenix of all places in 2015, the timing of a race-ending storm eliminating Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch from the winner-take-all race. In 2017, Elliott and Denny Hamlin both likely advance into the Championship Race if they didn’t get involved in an on-track altercation and simply run 1-2.

Truex starts even further back, but has a larger points margin of error.

1. Kyle Busch +40
2. Kevin Harvick +39
3. Martin Truex Jr. +23
4. Chase Elliott +3

5. Clint Bowyer -3
6. Joey Logano -3
7. Kurt Busch -3
8. Aric Almirola -12

So, it’s not the worst-case scenario if Truex can’t score a stage point or two as long as he gets a good finish, but it’s still a storyline worth following on Sunday afternoon. As long as Bowyer, Logano, Busch and Aric Almirola are inside the top-10, Elliott and Truex should be sweating while they are not.

Elliott and Truex will immediately fall below the provisional cutline as soon as the race starts and will begin their recovery effort.

This is really what makes this playoff format, and really this round, so captivating. While there are some who hate the points as they run dynamic, it certainly provides a layer of intrigue to an already exciting short track race at Martinsville.

Johnson also to the rear

When Jimmie Johnson and Chad Kanus are no longer effective at Martinsville, that’s likely a sign that their impending break-up is probably necessary.

The No. 48 finished 15th, one lap down at the Virginia half-mile in the spring, and then qualified 23rd on Saturday. Then they were penalized for missing tech inspection on Sunday morning.

It will be fascinating to see if they can still work their way to the front and contend for a 10th grandfather clock or if it will be more of the same. Historically speaking, Johnson should have an opportunity to break his season-long winless streak with multiple wins at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix respectively.

Johnson even has one win at Homestead, but with each struggle and misstep, it’s becoming more likely that Johnson will suffer his first winless season of his prolific career in 2018.

Pit Stops and Restarts will be Key

If passing will be as difficult as expected, it will be important for the contenders to not speed on pit road or suffer any penalties.

But another thing to keep an eye on will be the stalling drivers often do on pit road, while trying to ensure they restart on the bottom. As has always been the case at Martinsville, restarting on the top will mean a loss of at least three-to-six positions.

Unless … You have teammates willing to cut you a break.

With Stewart-Haas Racing making up half of the playoff field, and already proving a willingness to work with each other at Talladega, don’t be surprised to see them allow each other room to drop to the bottom at every opportunity to ensure that at least one SHR car will win and advance to Homestead.

Of course, the Penske, Hendrick and Gibbs drivers already eliminated have even more incentive to aid their championship-chasing teammates so look for that too.

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