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ANDERS: Truex emerging as title favorite

NASCAR Kentucky Auto Racing-2
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Martin Truex Jr. gestures to the crowd following his victory in the NASCAR Cup auto race at Kentucky Speedway, Saturday, July 8, 2017, in Sparta, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

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NASCAR Kentucky Auto Racing
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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, July 16, 2017

I can’t remember the first time I heard of Martin Truex Jr.

The earliest memory I have of him is seeing him in what is now the Xfinity Series, driving a No. 8 car owned by Chance 2 Motorsports, besting team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the spring race at Talladega. Being 13 years old and a fan of Earnhardt at the time, I liked Truex.

When he clinched the series title that season at Darlington in a car that featured a throwback Wrangler paint scheme that honored Dale Earnhardt, I became a fan. I still have the hat and T-shirt from that championship.

I remember being pumped enough when he jumped to the Cup Series in 2006 with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated that I bought a hat and T-shirt to go along with my Dale Jr., No. 8 gear. The day he got his first win, at Dover in a June 2007 race that was run on a Monday, I was a junior in high school, listening to the race with headphones on a pocket radio in class. I got in trouble for that, but didn’t even care.

I’ve written in this column about how impressive the success is that Truex and Furniture Row Racing have combined to achieve. We’ve seen them put beatdowns on the field — namely last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte — but what they did last Saturday night at Kentucky was just the latest reminder of what they’ve been showing for a while now.

When NASCAR goes to a 1.5-mile racetrack, Truex and the No. 78 is going to be the car to beat.

Whether by design or by happenstance, Truex’s team has dominated on the kind of tracks that happen to occupy half of the spots in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. At Kentucky, he didn’t just lead the most laps — he was in his own zip code, building up a lead of more than 15 seconds late in the race before outgunning the field in overtime

That 2007 win at Dover was one of just two Truex picked up in the first nine full seasons of his career. In the three since, he has won eight races, including three this season. All of those three (Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky) have come at 1.5-milers.

With the massive stash of stage and playoff points it has amassed, the No. 78 team has set itself up beautifully for the playoffs. Once it gets there, the list of venues seems to play right into its hands, because it doesn’t look like anyone is on the same level at the mile-and-a-halfs as Truex.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those are the only tracks in which he can excel. He’s on the pole for this race at Loudon.

KENSETH QUESTIONS: NASCAR’s game of musical driver’s seats got even more frenzied this week with the announcement that Matt Kenseth won’t be back in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 car next season.

No one imagined Kenseth to be around for another five-to-10 years. The guy is 45, but still clearly capable of being competitive despite the No. 20 team’s struggles this season.

Moving Erik Jones back to the No. 20 is about the least surprising development to come out of the last month’s worth of rumors. At just 21, Gibbs is setting up that ride with a guy who could easily pilot it for the next 20 years.

The question that leaves is what becomes of Kenseth. The guy is a former champion and a future hall-of-famer, but where he winds up will be interesting. Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 car has been floated as a possibility with its impending vacancy, but it’s hard to imagine Rick Hendrick reaching for an aging star when he has Alex Bowman and William Byron in-house. Signing Kenseth to a deal with any reasonable number of years attached to it runs the risk of flaming out one or both of those young drivers while they wait for a seat. Or worse, it could drive them away.

If Furniture Row Racing’s No. 77 team survives after Jones leaves, that could be an option, as that team has been much more competitive this year than I expected. That’s a question mark, though, based on team owner Barney Visser’s comments about whether that team can continue past 2017 with the funding it has.

It would be nice to see Kenseth pick up something competitive, because it would be a bummer to see him sort of phased out against his will simply because of the lack of a good opportunity. The guy has been too good for something like that to happen.

PREDICTION

Kyle Larson was the original pole winner for this weekend’s race, but will start at the back after failing post-qualifying inspection. It will be fun to watch him come through the field, and he’s been so much faster than everyone else this weekend that I think he can overcome. PICK: Kyle Larson

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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