A tale of two Playoff contenders: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

A tale of two Playoff contenders: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Courtesy of Toyota Racing

Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were polar opposites in the opening race of the NASCAR Cup Playoffs at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night.

Entering the Southern 500, two points separated Truex and Busch, who were seeded third and fourth, respectively, in the Playoff standings. Both drivers had five stage wins in the first 26 races. With three wins, compared with Busch’s two, Truex had 24 Playoff points, two more than the total accumulated by his teammate.

In the Southern 500, Busch was wrecked and his night ended early. He blamed the car, took his lumps and left with a 35th-place finish.

Truex praised his team and the speed of No 19 Toyota. He blamed himself for incurring a speeding penalty on pit road but recovered with a fourth-place result.

No doubt, Busch is one of the most talented racers to ever sit inside a stock car. He’s currently the only driver in the Playoffs with two championships on his resume. However, the lack of practice over the past two seasons has absolutely confounded the 36-year-old racer.

Truex, 41, also is a gifted competitor, but likely had to work a little harder to elevate his skill level to the likes of Busch. The second-generation driver is a late bloomer in NASCAR circles. While he scored consecutive Xfinity Series titles in 2004-2005, Truex was already 25 when he transitioned to a full-time Cup ride. His first multiple-win season wouldn’t come until a decade later.

Frustration got the best of Busch on Sunday. Hearing his post-wreck comments, maybe he was defeated before the race began. Busch was running 12th before his Lap 125 crash. Truex was fifth at the time.

Forty laps later, Truex would face his first dose of adversity. A loose lug nut led to a loose wheel and he was forced to return to the pits prior to the Lap 169 restart. He dropped from seventh to 24th, having lost a lap during an interrupted cycle of pit stops.

Still, Truex remained composed. He got the lap back but subsequently was penalized for speeding on pit road.

Sure, he let off steam after the speeding penalty caught him by surprise with less than 40 laps remaining in the contest. But he kept digging.

“The Bass Pro Toyota was really fast,” Truex said. “Made good adjustments all day and as soon as it started cooling off, the car started coming to me and we were really good on long runs. We needed long runs and when we would get them, we would go forward. That was good. Then just the loose wheel mistake and fought through that and then I sped on pit road when we had the lead. I feel like we had a shot at the win for sure there, we were really fast that last run. We came from a long way back and passed a lot of cars to get to fourth. Never know how it might have worked out.

“All in all, just really proud of the effort and of the fight, the never-give-up attitude that we have as a team.”

After winning three of the first 12 races of the season, the No. 19 JGR team has endured its struggles over the past four months. Truex has fought to regain the consistency the team’s accustomed to.

“We’ve been battling through a lot of crap all summer long with crashes, damage and a lot of stuff, but we always fight back and get the best finish we possibly can,” Truex said. “We’ve been through a lot together and it’s toughened our edges up a little bit I think. We kind of went through that like it wasn’t anything. A little bit of frustration on the radio and then it was gone and time to go forward and dig hard. Proud of that and hopefully we can build off it.

“It was a big night with the Playoffs and it turned out to be worth the fight for sure.”

With his ninth top-five in 2021, Truex maintained third place in the standings. He’s currently 44 points behind Kyle Larson.

Busch, however, fell from fourth in the standings to 14th and into danger of elimination in the first round. His crash at Darlington was the third for the No. 18 Toyota in the last six races. Although he’s only two points outside of the top 12, there’s only so much margin for error in the postseason.

Winning would cure a lot—and Busch leads all active drivers with wins at both Richmond (six) and Bristol (8).

Barring a victory, Busch might benefit from following the example of his teammate.

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