Martin Truex Jr nearly locked himself into the Playoffs last weekend at New Hampshire, but it all came crashing down in typical fashion. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver qualified on pole, swept the first two Stages, and led 172 of the 301 laps. After dominating the majority of the afternoon, Truex was snake bitten by strategy at the end of the race.

“It’s the Loudon curse for me, I guess,” Truex said. “I don’t know how many times this is going to happen. We lead all day, and then we get beat on strategy or tires or whatever it is. I don’t know, just Loudon. It’s just the way it’s been my whole career. It doesn’t matter how good we are if we don’t win.”

The decision to only change two tires when the majority of the field opted for four tires proved to be the wrong call. A slow restart and drivers with fresher tires behind him quickly dropped him back through the field. “Just didn’t have anything to go forward on two tires,” Truex said after the race. “The car absolutely hated it. It’s nothing like it had been all day long and couldn’t go anywhere, just had to ride it out and get what we could out of it.”

The end result was a 4th place finish, which ordinarily would not be that bad. Considering the circumstances though, it was a major gut punch to Martin and the No. 19 team. It was deja vu for Truex, who has led 916 laps at New Hampshire in his 29 career Cup starts, but has never been to victory lane there.

“I thought it was the right decision at the time,” crew chief James Small stated. “You have a shitty restart and then you’re screwed. I don’t know, I guess we should have taken four tires.” Martin was quick to defend his crew chief. “I’ve been beat on two tires before. I’ve got beaten by two, beaten by four now. It’s whatever. It is frustrating. It’s just disappointing for us to give it away like that.”

Despite the goose egg in the win column, Truex has been one of the most consistent drivers this season. Heading into today's race, he leads the series in Stage wins, is 3rd in Stage points and 4th in overall points. Truex sits 4th among lap leaders this season, just five laps behind 3rd place. His 13.6 average finishing position this season is tied for 5th-best with teammate Kyle Busch.

Today’s race at Pocono will be interesting because the most comparable track is the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which the series has not raced on since the 2020 season. Truex has won here twice (2015 and 2018) and finished 18th and 11th in the double header last year. He qualified 8th yesterday and hopes to put the “Playoff talk” behind him with a win this afternoon.

"We’ve been close. We’ve been running better lately, leading more laps. We don’t change what we do. We don’t change who we are. The more we can run up front, the more we can lead laps, the better our chances are going to be of winning, and we showed that last week. If we continue to race the way we do, we’re in. There’s no reason to be nervous. We need to do our jobs, try to win and if we can’t win, stack up all the points we can."

"Sometimes things don’t roll the way you need them to, and sometimes you make bad decisions and they snowball. I feel like we have a team to win, we’ve had cars to win, especially here lately. There’s no reason to panic and lose your mind and go crazy about it. I know what I can do and where our team is at. We can win races, and worrying about it is not going to help us."

The reality is that Truex now sits on the Playoff bubble with six races remaining. The 2017 Cup champion is in 16th place, 68 points ahead of Kevin Harvick. His boss, Joe Gibbs, is concerned. “I’m very nervous about it,” Gibbs said. “I think all of us are. We’ve got to give Martin everything we can give him because we need that car. We need it in the playoffs that’s for sure.”

All four Gibbs cars made the Playoffs last season. If the team hopes to duplicate that again this year, they will likely need to have a little luck on their side.

After today's race at Pocono, there will be five more opportunities for Martin to punch his ticket. Two of those (IMS Road Course, Watkins Glen) are on road courses, which JGR have been remarkably horrible this year. The final race is at Daytona, where anything can (and usually does) happen. It's a game of roulette, which leaves two realistic shots for Truex.

Michigan could be another wild card in this season full of parity and unknowns, and Truex has never won there in 31 starts. Following that weekend though, is a trip to Richmond, Virginia. That may be the best bet for Martin and his team to capitalize on their potential.

Truex has been sensational at Richmond, and especially in recent years. He has won three of the last six races there, and has seven consecutive top-five finishes at the short track, including 1,285 laps led. That doesn't necessarily translate to immediate success this year, but the team certainly has this weekend circled on their calendar.

What they don’t want to see is another new race winner. With 14 different winners this season, it may take more than just a win to make it into the Playoffs, if more than 16 drivers find victory lane. Truex is good on points, he just needs the win. IMS, Watkins Glen, and Daytona all have serious potential for another new race winner. That would be a crushing blow for the No. 19 crew.

Whether he truly believes it or not, Truex is not ready to hit the panic button just yet. “It is what it is,” he said of their situation. “If another guy wins, then we’re out. That’s just the way it is. We race every week. Do the best we can, try to win races. Obviously, lately, we’ve been capable. We’ve had cars capable of winning this year. For whatever reason, that third stage, we muck it up.”

Correcting those issues is something that the organization will have at the top of their priority list, but that list is long. It has been a trying season for the Gibbs bunch, which still has not resolved their contract/sponsor issue with Kyle Busch. In addition to that messy situation, they have had to work with 23XI Racing on pit crew changes, the drama between Denny Hamlin and Ross Chastain, their road course setup problems, and all of the NextGen changes on top of everything else.

The good news is they have resolved a couple of lingering issues. The team did sign Truex to a contract extension to bring him back next season. Truex said his decision to come back for another year was an easy one, because he loves the competition and working with his team.

"My favorite part about this sport throughout my whole career has been the behind-the-scenes parts, working on the race car. I love that aspect of it,” he said. “I love working with the team, the camaraderie, just everyone pulling in the same direction. That really got me into it in the first place and now it’s kept me around for this many years."

The other item that Gibbs marked off their To Do List came last Sunday, when Christopher Bell scored the win he needed to get into the Playoffs, albeit at the misfortune of Truex.

Despite the heartbreak last weekend, Truex is ready to put it all behind him. "We’ll just keep digging," he said. "We’ve got a great team. The guys at JGR are working really hard right now. The cars are fast, and obviously we’re getting better."