Many Favorites Still Looking For A Win

Martin Truex, Jr. & William Byron

As Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota sat on the Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway frontstretch in a painful stall only yards before the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon, it was a vivid and frustrating microcosm of the former NASCAR Cup Series champion’s day and season. So good. So close.

“It’s just one of them years,’’ a frustrated Truex told reporters walking down Sonoma’s pit road afterward. Instead of what looked like a runner-up finish, he was scored 27th.

It was actually a demonstrative common theme among several of the sport’s best as the summer “Playoff push” begins. So many of the high-profile names on the starting grid – including multiple former champions – are still racing for their first victory of the season, missing the trophies with close calls and late-race misfortune with 10 races now remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field.

Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney and his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano – a two-time series champ – lead that list joined by another two-time series champion, Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch along with Truex.

All four of those drivers had solid days on track Sunday – and in weeks previously – but none of them have claimed a win despite strong efforts and now move to the Iowa Speedway debut on the schedule still competing for that first victory. A win isn’t just an automatic Playoff bid – these high-achieving drivers are likely to point their way in regardless – but it is an important morale boost and a signal their teams are championship-forward.

Despite his 27th place finish at Sonoma – his third finish of 20th or worse in the last four races – Truex is still ranked fourth in the championship – highest among those without a win yet.

Logano started his No. 22 Team Penske Ford from pole position and was encouraged by his chances at Sonoma, even though he’s only had a single road course win in his career (2015, Watkins Glen, N.Y.). He did lead 16 laps but finished 21st.

His current 16th place position in the championship standings isn’t good enough to make him Playoff eligible right now because two race winners – his Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric and Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suárez – have race wins despite being ranked below Logano and would supersede his place in the standings.

The two-time series champ, Logano, hasn’t been ranked this low in the standings through 16 races since 2011 – when he was 22nd in the championship standings, ironically having also won pole position at Sonoma, then driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Unfortunate end to our weekend in Sonoma, especially with the speed we showed the last two days,’’ Logano said. “Anything can happen on these re-starts and it was just wrong place, wrong time for us after trying to flip the strategy on everyone up front. Still proud of the effort from the 22 crew to keep after it all day long despite the early setback there.’’

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Mustang ran among the top 10 most of the day at Sonoma and finished seventh; his best outcome in five weeks and coming after a heart-breaking showing in St. Louis a week earlier when it appeared he would hoist a trophy. Instead, the fan favorite ran out of gas while leading with only a lap to go, resulting in his teammate Cindric getting the hardware instead. Blaney is still safely among the Playoff-eligible in 12th place in the points standings.

Busch, in his second year with RCR, looked to finally get a break from weeks of frustration on-track. Although he didn’t lead any laps Sunday, he managed to work his way forward and was contending for a top five when contact with Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain sent him spinning off course in the final laps. Busch still ended up finishing 12th but is ranked 15th in points and like Logano, would miss a Playoff position because of Cindric’s and Suárez’s wins.

The two-time series champion’s last top 10 was five weeks ago at Kansas (eighth place) and his best showing of the year is third at Atlanta in the second race of the season. He has won a race in all 19 seasons he’s competed in the series – the longest streak in series history.

“[Crew chief] Randall Burnett and all the guys on the Chevrolet team came up with a great strategy today that put us in position to score a top five finish,’’ Busch said. “Early in the race I thought I broke something on the right-front, but we had a damaged wheel. We lost track position, but our strategy kept us in the game.

“A couple of guys there at the end of the race had better tires than we did, but we were going to have a good day. Unfortunately, one of those guys got into us on the last lap and ruined our day. It’s frustrating to not get the finish that we deserved.’’

They will all have another very fresh opportunity at Iowa Speedway this weekend. In two Xfinity Series starts there, Busch has a victory (2010) and a runner-up finish (2009), but it is the first NASCAR Cup Series race ever at the .875-mile oval. There is a practice session Friday with qualifying on Saturday afternoon and then the Iowa Corn 350 Powered by Ethanol on Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET (USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).


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