Cruising for a title

Martin Truex Jr. celebrates winning the Coca-Cola 600 with his team at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Martin Truex Jr. keeps dropping these not-too subtle hints that he’s the driver to beat for this season’s NASCAR Cup championship.

First, there was the regular season, during which Truex won four races, easily qualifying him for the postseason.

Then there was the first round of the playoffs. All Truex did there was win the first two races (at Las Vegas and Richmond), moving him into the second round without so much as breaking a sweat.

Truex didn’t win in the next round, but top-10 finishes at Charlotte’s Roval (seventh) and Dover (second) moved him along easily.

Finally, Truex’s dominant victory Sunday at Martinsville’s paper-clip-shaped short track opened the third round — and took care of any doubt who the favorite will likely be in November when the title is decided among four drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Does Truex care who joins him in the final four? And if he doesn’t, would he consider maybe trying to help a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate like Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch?

“I mean, I wouldn’t mind winning the next three (races),” Truex told reporters at Martinsville on Sunday. “I mean, that’s what we’re going to try to do. That’s what we get paid to do. That’s our job is to try to win. Yeah, I mean, we’re not going to let anybody win, if that’s what you’re asking. Doesn’t matter who they are, teammates are not. We’re not going to let anybody win. We’re going to try our best, and hopefully we can get it done. “We’re not going to let anybody win.”

Truex’s victory at NASCAR’s shortest track was similar to his win at the 2016 Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s longest race. At Charlotte, Truex led a race-record 392 of 400 laps. He also led for 588 of the 600 miles, most ever in a single race.

At Martinsville, Truex led 464 of 500 laps. That’s not quite as overwhelming, percentage-wise (92.8 versus 98.0 at Charlotte), but it’s close enough. And it was a statement.

This will be Truex’s fourth appearance in the final four. He’s going to feel better about his chances than ever before, even in 2017, when he won the title. He’s doing it with his longtime crew chief Cole Pearn, but with a new JGR team after Furniture Row Racing went under after last season; the crew had to relocate from Denver to the Charlotte area.

“We’ve never been in this position before,” Truex said. “Every time we’ve made the final four, we’ve ‘pointed’ our way in. We’ve never won in this round, so it’s new territory. It’s good territory to be in, but honestly we can’t change who we are. I said that earlier in the year when the playoffs started. You can’t just go from the regular season to we’re going to change our mindset for the playoffs.

“You race every week the same, just there’s more on the line as you go down the road here. Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of effort put into our car for Homestead, which is probably already started, but now there will be a little bit of extra time for Cole and the guys to work on their thoughts and their plan. But we’re going to go try to win the next two. Just like here, we’ve never won the next two tracks, and we want to, so here we go. We’ll go see if we can do it. But if we don’t, oh, well, it doesn’t really matter.”