NASCAR: Federated Auto Parts 400

Martin Truex Jr. (19) races Corey LaJoie (32) during the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. is certainly making a bold statement about both his championship determination and his racing ability in taking the trophies in each of the first two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races.

And now comes the bad news for his competitors.

This week’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has probably been circled on his calendar since shortly after the checkered flag flew in last year’s race.

Truex was leading on the last lap of the 2018 inaugural ROVAL race when his Toyota tangled with a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet during the final series of turns — within eyesight of the finish line. Instead of hoisting a trophy, Truex finished 14th.

Regardless of the finish, no driver has been better on road courses in recent years than Truex. In the last six road course races in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competition, the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has three wins and two runner-up finishes. He won his second consecutive race at Sonoma Raceway in June and finished runner-up to Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen International in August.

Momentum is something the New Jersey native has in abundance. With his back-to-back playoff wins at Las Vegas and Richmond, he now has a series-high six wins. Amazingly, it marks the first time the 2017 series champion’s career he has posted consecutive Cup series wins. Since 2016, Truex has eight playoff race wins — most in the field during that time frame.

He also has a free pass into the second round of the playoffs — something no other driver can claim. And with Sunday’s race being the first elimination race of the playoffs this season, there is no shortage of pressure in the garage. Twelve of the 16 drivers will advance to Round of 12 still fighting for a championship. And the standings are particularly tight around the cutoff mark.

Second-year Monster Energy Series driver William Byron goes into Charlotte sitting in the pivotal 12th position. But he holds only a two-point edge on 13th-place Alex Bowman, a four-point edge on 14th-place Clint Bowyer and a 14-point advantage on 15th-place Kurt Busch. Erik Jones, whose car was disqualified following a fourth-place finish at Richmond last week, is 16th — 45 points behind Byron — and will need to win to advance.

The points are close among those to the good of Byron, as well. Aric Almirola is ranked 11th, only a single point up on Byron. Ryan Blaney — the defending ROVAL winner — is only six points up on Byron in 10th place. And ninth-place Ryan Newman holds only a 14-point cushion on Bowman at the cutoff line.

For some of these high-achieving playoff drivers, there are also some personal issues to address. Blaney hasn’t won a race since his ROVAL triumph. Kyle Larson, who led a race-best 47 laps last year only to finish 25th, is a five-race winner but hasn’t won since September 2017 at Richmond.

In fact, Larson, Newman, Blaney, Almirola and Byron — positions 8-12 in the standings — are all winless on the year. In the second-year series driver Byron’s case, he’s still looking for his first win at this premier level.

After a triumphant regular season for the whole Joe Gibbs Racing team, when Kyle Busch won the regular-season championship and tied teammates Truex and Denny Hamlin with a series-best four wins, there is certainly an eagerness to have a playoff resurgence. Both Busch and Hamlin answered a tough-luck playoff opener at Las Vegas with top-3 finishes at Richmond last week — Busch led a race-high 202 laps and finished runner-up to Truex, with Hamlin placing third.

Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano have earned five wins between them in 2019, but the last trophy came 14 races ago when Logano won at Michigan. Two of the top contenders this weekend should be Elliott, seventh in the standings and a winner at Watkins Glen this year, and Kevin Harvick. The veteran sits second in the championship standings, 21 points behind Truex, and has won at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen in his career.

It’s been a week of triumph and smiles for NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff standings leader Christopher Bell. Last Friday he won the playoff opener at Richmond Raceway to move into the championship lead for the second time this season.

Three days later, Bell was formally introduced as the new driver of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota — his highly-anticipated MENCS tenure starting next February at Daytona.

First, however, Bell’s got a championship to win. And he seems to be putting it all together very well. He won a series-best seventh race at Richmond and now holds a 22-point edge on Cole Custer and 44-point edge on regular-season champion Tyler Reddick heading into the Drive for the Cure 250 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Not only does Bell have a firm grasp on the title run, he — along with Austin Cindric — have proven to be the drivers to beat when it comes to road course racing. The pair have finished some combination of 1-2 at the three previous road courses on the schedule. Cindric earned his first career Xfinity Series win at Watkins Glen International and then won again at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — edging Bell both times. Bell answered with the trophy at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., finishing one position better than Cindric.

A driver to watch this week, however, is defending race winner Chase Briscoe, who led a race-high 33 laps last year en route to his first Xfinity Series victory. He is ranked seventh in the standings — only 17 points to the good of ninth-place Brandon Jones. The top eight drivers will advance to the second round of the playoffs following next week’s race at Dover International Speedway.

Beyond his desire to challenge for the title, veteran Justin Allgaier couldn’t be more motivated to win. A five-race winner last season, the JR Motorsports driver is still looking for his first of 2019. And he boasts the best road course record among current drivers in the Xfinity Series with three victories. He’s had top-10 runs at all of the three previous road course venues in 2019. He finished 15th in last year’s ROVAL inaugural.

Adding to the intrigue of this unique 2.32-mile, 18-turn venue is that 15 drivers entered in Saturday’s race will be making their ROVAL debut — including championship contenders in rookies Gragson, Justin Haley and John Hunter Nemechek, along with veterans AJ Allmendinger and Joe Nemechek. And then there’s the Gander Outdoors Truck Series’ young star, 18-year old Harrison Burton.

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