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Long: New Hampshire haunts Martin Truex Jr. again

Despite leading the most laps at New Hampshire, Martin Truex Jr. finishes fourth after taking two tires for the last stage instead of four, as he considers himself in a must-win situation on the playoff bubble.

LOUDON, N.H. — Martin Truex Jr. was on his way to winning Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but when the checkered flag flew, he found himself snakebit by strategy and a jumbled restart that left him holding the final playoff spot with six races left in the regular season.

“It’s just Loudon,” Truex said after a less-than-satisfying fourth-place finish on a day where he started on the pole, led the most laps and won both stages. “It’s the way it has been my whole career. It doesn’t matter how good we are (at this track). We can’t win.”

Sunday looked to be different. Until it wasn’t.

The result was that Truex left this track for the 29th time in his Cup career without a win.

And this one stings.

Teammate Christopher Bell’s victory made him the 14th different Cup winner this season, leaving two playoff spots based on points. Truex finds himself in the precarious spot that if there is a 15th different winner — and it’s not him or Ryan Blaney — Truex will be out of a playoff position.

With two road courses and a race at Daytona among those left in the regular season, the thought that the only way to make the playoffs this year will be by a victory is growing.

“We race every week, do the best we can, try to win races,” said Truex, who is winless in his 28 starts.

The key moment Sunday for Truex came when the caution flag waved on Lap 206 of the 301-lap race after Todd Gilliland’s incident. Truex led. The caution put teams in the window to make it the rest of the race on fuel after they pitted.

Truex entered pit road first and exited first, but he wasn’t in the lead.

Three cars stayed out. Truex was next after a two-tire change.

“We thought we did the right thing to get track position,” James Small, crew chief for Truex, told NBC Sports.

Truex was followed off pit road by Kyle Larson (no tires), Kevin Harvick (two tires), William Byron (two tires) and Ross Chastain (two tires). Chase Elliott was next and was the first car on four tires.

Truex restarted on the inside of the second row behind Joey Logano, who had not pitted.

“(Logano) got a bad jump in front of us,” Truex said. “I tried to push him to get us going. (Harvick) made us three-wide, and I got put in a bad spot and lost a few spots.”

Truex soon was shuffled back to 11th. Without a caution the rest of the race, his hopes of winning were all but over.

“Just didn’t have anything to go forward on two tires,” said Truex, who led 172 of 301 laps. “The car absolutely hated it. It was nothing like it had been all day long. Couldn’t go anywhere and just had to ride it out and get what we could out of it.”

Said Small: “In hindsight, maybe we should have taken four tires and we would have gotten a better restart. We would have been further back, who knows?”

Small said he thought a lot of teams would take only two tires because left side tires had not worn much during the race.

“It just didn’t pan out,” he said. “Even in the end of the race, our pace was still fine, it’s that we just gave up way too much at the start of the run. Yes, the car is going to drive worse in traffic. We were lucky enough to be out front all day and able to pass our way through.”

Until the end.

That left Small to say: “Good points day, but, really, we need a win. So it doesn’t really matter.”

What’s frustrating for Truex and his team is that this isn’t the first time that the team lost a chance to win a race.

Last month at Nashville, Truex was in position to restart on the front row for the final caution, but he mistakingly followed two teammates on to pit road, got stuck in traffic and finished 22nd.

That had been his best chance to win this season to that point. He later admitted he beat himself up for a couple of days because of his mistake.

Truex again will have to change his mindset after Sunday’s result at New Hampshire.

“It’s just disappointing,” Truex said, “for us to give it away like that.”