JOLIET, Ill. — Martin Truex Jr. had a choice just 42 laps into the 2016 playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.
As he coasted into the garage with a blown engine, he knew he still had a chance to make it into the semifinal round. He would have needed several other playoff drivers to drop out with issues or a crash. In the uncertain world of Talladega, it’s been known to happen.
But Truex was in no mood to play the what-if game afterward.
“I left,” Truex said. “They let me leave.”
His team left, too.
“We had taken off but we were following it the whole time,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “We knew we were kind of hosed. That was it.”
Truex knew in his gut what would happen. He missed advancing to the semifinal round by 18 points, thanks to that blown engines and finishes of 13th and 11th earlier in the round. A solid first 29 races with four wins, seven top-5s and 15 top-10s ended up with a disappointing 11th-place finish in the standings.
When Truex learned of the 2017 NASCAR points system, one that would reward drivers throughout the year and allow them to carry benefits from strong regular-season finishes throughout the playoffs, Truex was all about it.
He knew that these “playoff points” could help him advance, and he has driven like he has known that another Talladega could happen. Truex not only has tied for a series-high four victories this year but also won 18 of the 53 stages, seven more than any other driver. The playoff points he earned, plus an additional 15 thanks to being the regular-season champ, give him a 20-point lead in the standings entering the start of the playoffs Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
“When we saw how it was going to be, our minds directly went to last year and the round we got knocked out of,” Truex said. “We all thought to ourselves, ‘That would have been big then.’
“It’s going to be huge. We focused on bonus points this year.”
Truex could continue to build on his points lead — or see it shrink — in the first two rounds of the playoffs as stage wins and race wins will add to a team’s playoff points total at the resets of the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
And while that will help him feel confident and the sting of Talladega last year has worn off, the lessons of 2016 remain with Truex.
“We learned you never know what’s going to happen,” said Truex, who has had five races this year where he has not finished. “You’ve got to perform every week. You can’t have any bad races. This year is obviously a lot different with the bonus points and hopefully we will have enough of those to fall back on if something like Talladega happens.
“I’m definitely optimistic about our chances to get to where we want to be, which is the final four.”
Truex certainly knows that he might not be able to prevent an engine failure at the most inopportune time.
“At the end of the day, it’s just the way it is,” Truex said. “It’s racing. Three-race rounds? You never know what can happen.”
If the team needed any reminder of that, it came in the two weeks leading into the playoffs this year. Truex had led 39 consecutive laps before blowing a tire with three laps remaining to lose at Darlington. Then at Richmond, he had led 47 consecutive laps but lost the lead on pit road and then crashed because of a caution with less than three laps remaining.
“After the last two weekends that we’ve had, we have no sense of security on anything,” Furniture Row GM Joe Garone said. “You can’t get secure in this sport at all. … What we went through last year at Talladega really stung, and it would be nice to be able to avoid that.
“But we’re certainly not sitting on our heels thinking there’s any security on any of this.”
Both Talladega and the last couple of weeks have the same impact on the team’s psyche of no guarantees.
“It’s all bad,” Garone said. “The last two weeks, in particular last weekend … I don’t know if we’ll ever get over that.”
Truex will try to get over the disappointment of seeing two more victories slip away. He will try to just look ahead. He has no clue which cars the team will bring to the tracks throughout the playoffs as he figures the newest car is the best car and so he refrains from having a favorite.
He didn’t even test Chicagoland earlier this year.
With extra confidence from another year of solid finishes, Truex said the team should be more prepared this year for the playoffs.
“For us, we’ve kind of always ran better when we don’t test,” Truex said. “We tested there in 2015 and thought we were really good and went back for the race and we weren’t as good as we thought.
“That’s part of the reason, but also it was a busy time of the schedule and we wanted to make sure we were putting all our effort into racing.”
Truex will test Homestead in six weeks. It is a track where he has a mediocre track record.
That past Homestead performance might be enough to not consider Truex the championship favorite despite his leading 22 percent of the laps this year. An even bigger reason is that the track appears as one of the best for Kyle Larson, who tied Truex with a series-high four regular-season wins.
“We definitely have already thought what we have to do to get better,” Truex said. “We haven’t been that good there the last couple of years.
“We’re definitely thinking about that, not circling anyone [among the competition] in particular. Obviously, Larson has been really good there but for us, we’ll focus on what we’re doing and try to figure out how to get around that place better.”
Pearn said the team is committed to run the full two days of the Homestead test even though that is a long trip from the team’s base in Colorado.
“We got better last year there, but it’s still not where the 42 [of Larson] has been for sure,” Pearn said. “They’ve had way more speed this year than in year’s past so you’ve got to believe they’re going to be good there.
“I feel like we’ve got a good plan, and I think we know where our weaknesses are and what we need to work on to be better there.”
While Truex gets asked about Homestead, he tries not to get ahead of himself. Even with the playoff points, Truex won’t bank on them getting him to Homestead and cruise for the next nine weeks.
“You try to weigh risk versus reward, just like every other week,” Truex said. “You always make decisions in races to try to put yourself in the best position possible to ultimately win. I don’t think that changes.
“I don’t think you can race differently than you have all year long — that can take you out of your comfort zone and could possibly get you in trouble.”
Truex knows the sport is cyclical. And yet he isn’t thinking that his time to win a title is limited. He was among the four finalists in 2015 and finished 12th, last among them.
He won’t enter this playoff thinking that this is his best opportunity and he just can’t let it slip away out of fear he’ll never be in this position again.
“I don’t think you can approach it that way,” Truex said. “There’s a long way to go and our focus is on trying to continue what we’ve done.
“There are no guarantees. We could have won 10 races this year and there are still no guarantees. We’ve got to keep working hard and do the things we’re good at and focus on the things we’re good at and try to continue what we’ve been doing.”