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Smith: Title paths for Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin viable despite Phoenix result

Kyle Larson's win and championship "starts with the pit stop" late in the race, as Larson says his team came up "clutch." The No. 5 Hendrick driver analyzes his win and shares why he's so thankful for a second chance.

Defeated but not despondent, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin answered last week’s post-race questions clear-eyed and with an emotional neutrality that falls short of fostering the agony of loss we closely associate with sports.

Their losses were easy to swallow because the yearlong slog to get to that very point — discussing what went wrong while Katelyn Larson was shotgunning a celebratory beer — had actually worked out despite everything about this outlier season in a lame-duck car acting against them. Sure, there were heavy limits on parts development, wind tunnel time and engineering research. Yes, Toyota (and Ford) were already handcuffed to an engine package they weren’t permitted to improve while Hendrick Motorsports and ECR were allowed additional, uncontested time to develop and submit a new product.

Unable to outspend the competition, Joe Gibbs Racing’s biggest strength across the last two decades, the teams of Truex and Hamlin were hip to the disadvantage. They chose an alternative path through the season and towards the playoffs, one focused heavily on the 750-horsepower tracks with prominent positioning on the schedule. These teams were never popular betting favorites but never needed to be.

Was it a successful path? If points were any indication, yes. Hamlin and Truex ranked first and second, respectively, during the regular season in points scored on playoff tracks. If wins were any indication, yes. All of their combined six wins took place on playoff tracks. If the championship race was any indication, yes, so long as we don’t confuse the destination for the journey.

Before the race, Hamlin warned that it’d be some isolated moment or the race breaking in a way beneficial to some more than others that’d separate the four title contenders. So close were Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott that each of them ranked second in at least one statistical metric this season on 750-horsepower tracks. The four teams ranked within the top five for average median lap time on the track type and the race played out as the spreadsheets suggested; they ranked within the top five for median lap time, separated by a 0.05 seconds. In that regard, only Darlington, among all playoff races, saw a closer disparity between its five fastest drivers.

Hamlin’s prediction proved true when the race broke with a short run and catered to the track position established by the final pit stop. Given one of the fastest four-tire stops of the last three seasons, all Larson needed to do was safely launch from the lead position with 24 laps to go and the JGR cars, tuned for long runs to an extreme extent, would offer no trouble.

“Track position just means so much,” Hamlin said. “You kind of know, like when someone gets a restart and controls the race late, it’s so hard. You’re going to need them to really make a huge mistake.”

The fact that Larson couldn’t extend a lead over Truex beyond one second was a testament to both the relative equality in this final race and the last-ditch effort by James Small, Truex’s crew chief, to increase air pressures on his driver’s tires to allow for a more efficient launch on the restart. It was meant to supplement a deliberate weakness and very nearly worked. One wobble by Larson, notably battling a car his crew chief deemed “terrible” at its lowest point, and he would’ve been overtaken by Truex and possibly Hamlin.

“My crew chief kept telling me how bad (Larson) was handling,” Hamlin said. “You could see he was just plowing, but the clean air made up for any deficiencies in that setup.”

Defending positions on short runs wasn’t much of a problem for the JGR duo despite cars optimized for long runs. Hamlin’s perfect retention rate across six restarts from the preferred groove was a sign of discipline, as was Truex netting a positional loss of zero from six non-preferred groove attempts. They were the two best position defenders on restarts across the entire playoff slate, but Phoenix’s race demanded offense. There was little to be had.

From the second row, there were four individual restarts worthy of multi-position gains from the Championship 4. Three of them belonged to Larson. The fourth was Truex’s final bid, air pressures high. The lead car retained position on 80% of restarts. A JGR car restarted from the lead only once.

“We just didn’t have the short-run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 (laps) to go, it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air,” Truex said. “I think if we would’ve had the lead, we could’ve held him off. But hindsight is 20/20 and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are.”

If not for David Starr’s brake rotor disintegrating directly in front of Race Control, Truex and Hamlin, first and second, would’ve battled against one another for the title across a 58-lap green-flag run. Their teams’ long-haul approaches to both this race and the season at large could’ve culminated in a way befitting their daring master plan, stealing the championship from Hendrick Motorsports with the deftness of a pickpocket.

But that didn’t happen, as the race broke against JGR’s favor.

“There’s nothing else I felt like I could’ve done differently,” Hamlin said.

There’s no trophy and thus no validation, but the radical manner in which JGR’s two title-contending teams subtly attacked the season and the championship race is a blueprint for years to come, so long as there’s a playoff format, a splitting of the rules package and teams at a competitive disadvantage.

If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now been crystallized: Season-long dominance and the series championship do not have to coalesce. Truex and Hamlin took their best shots, missed by a hair and, afterwards, shared no regrets. The destination yielded no reward, but their paths less traveled proved viable.

It’s now a trail fully blazed, ready for eager new followers.