Column: Truex and Larson stay the course to Championship 4 without ruffling feathers

Entering last Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, crew chief James Small reminded Martin Truex Jr. repeatedly that he had no friends on the race track.

In the closing stages, the ‘take no prisoners’ message was sent once again. 

Truex is a skilled racer and champion. While Small was simply offering a rally cry, the 41-year-old driver understands the value of not inflaming the competition in the Playoffs. So far, that strategy has enabled Truex to advance to the Championship 4 Round five times since the latest format was introduced in 2014. In 2017, he won the Cup title.

Even after a harrowing battle to remain in the hunt with 30 laps remaining in Sunday’s race, Truex was still complimentary of the his fellow contenders.

“It's just eight, guys,” Truex said. “It's the eight best guys of the year trying to whittle it down to four. You know it's going to be tight, close, every spot is going to matter. Unless you're Kyle Larson, you won 30 races this year, it's going to be close—29, sorry. I mean, you know it's going to be close. You come down to Martinsville, you know it's going to be a nail-biter, which it was.

“Next week it's an honor and pleasure to get to race for championships. Only four of us get to do it. It's a fun week. It's definitely a lot less pressure than trying to go eight to four.”

Larson was the only driver in the final four without pressure. With nine wins-including two in the Round of 8—17 stage wins and 65 Playoff points, the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team has been the class of the field in 2021. While Larson was mired in Martinsville traffic after two speeding penalties and finished 14th on Sunday, he understood the big picture. 

“Just tried to not make anybody upset, knowing that I’m not going to get back up there for a win,” Larson said after the race. “Just try to keep everybody on my good side.”

Truex and Larson maintained a semblance of respect and congeniality with their fellow drivers, Denny Hamlin played antagonist on Sunday. Did he have the right to be furious with Alex Bowman for dumping him for the win with seven laps remaining? Absolutely. But to draw the ire of not only the Bowman supporters by calling him a “hack” but to insult Chase Elliott’s massive fan base as he was booed emphatically in his home state was probably not Hamlin’s best move entering the final race of the season.

During the Championship 4 Team Owner’s press conference, Rick Hendrick was asked whether Bowman was indeed a “hack”?

“Describe a hack,” Hendrick said. “I don't know what a hack is. Look, he's won four races this year. Denny's won two. I think Denny just lost it Sunday. Alex races everybody clean. He's a good soldier. The sponsors love him. The crowd loves him.

I think when you're in the middle of a disappointment and you're frustrated and mad, you might say things that you wouldn't say normally. If he's a hack, I'd like to have more of ‘em.”

While the old adage of keep your friends close and your enemies closer may apply to every day life, it’s certainly not advisable on the race track. Either way, Hamlin’s list of enemies is growing—and not at an opportune time.

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