With new package can Martin Truex Jr. dominate again?

SPARTA, KENTUCKY - JULY 12: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto Owners Insurance Toyota, drives through the garage area during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway on July 12, 2019 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr. already has matched last year’s total of four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories, but the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is nevertheless concerned about his performance on qualifying days.

The statistics say he should be.

Last year, as one of the series’ so-called Big Three, Truex won four poles and posted an average qualifying position of 9.9. This season, his top efforts in time trials have produced fifth-place starts at Richmond and Daytona (July), and his average position on the starting grid is 15.6 through the first 18 races.

Truex has won the last two Kentucky races in dominating fashion, but there are new variables this season that could make the challenge of three in a row more difficult. Not only are the Cup drivers dealing with new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition rules, but they’ll also have to deal with the addition of traction compound to the racing surface at in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“As we figure this package out, and as we’ve run it at all these tracks this year, I feel like things have changed so much,” Truex said on Friday at Kentucky. “Early in the year, I feel like all the guys that ran good, qualified bad. Now, guys are figuring out ways to have enough speed in qualifying to start up front and to be able to have good enough handling throughout the race to stay up there.

“That’s been a big challenge for us is, how do we get both? We’ve had good handling cars at a lot of race tracks, but not a lot of speed. We’ve been able to take advantage of good handling. I don’t know. I think that, in a perfect world, you’d want to start up front because you get a good pit stall and you don’t have to worry about traffic and getting stuck trying to fight track position throughout that first stage.

“I think guys are figuring it out for sure. That’s something that we’re consistently working on and constantly working on that we haven’t, as the 19 car, we haven’t been able to figure it out quite yet.”

Historically, qualifying has been critical at Kentucky. The last three races—and five of the eight total at the 1.5-mile track—have been won from the front row. Truex qualified eighth Friday night, but being an impound race, will have to pass final inspection Saturday morning to keep that spot.