Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – The very first question asked of Martin Truex Jr. in his press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway Friday morning was about his comfort being back at the 1.5-mile tracks, places like Atlanta that were his bread-and-butter in his 2017 championship season.
Truex smiled and made no bones about it.
“I am certainly looking forward to it,’’ said Truex, who scored seven of his career-best eight wins last year on the 1.5-mile tracks – a substantial part of his 19 top-fives, 26 top-10 and three-pole haul en route to claiming his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
“I had a pretty decent first practice there,’’ he said of Friday morning’s early track time in preparation for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX). “It’s fun to get out there and knock the rust off. It’s a bit of a surprise to come here a year later and get reminded of how crazy this place is, how slick it is and how fast it is.
“Definitely a cool place to come knock the rust off and felt like we had a good practice. I am excited about that but as far as 1.5-mile tracks go, I think this one is very unique. It’s very different than most of the rest of them and we’re still looking to figure this place out. I feel like we’re getting closer and hope we have a good weekend here.”
Truex finished 18th in last week’s season-opening Daytona 500 – earning a respectable 11 bonus points in the first two stages and leading four laps on the afternoon. He arrived at Atlanta ranked 12th in the standings – 28 points behind first-time Monster Energy championship leader Ryan Blaney.
Yet as masterful as Truex has proven himself to be on the circuit’s 1.5-mile venues, the 37-year-old has never won at Atlanta. He has a pair of top fives and seven top 10s (including five in the past six races), but the closest he’s come to an Atlanta Cup victory is third place in 2013. He was eighth last year.
Interesting, Truex had only a single top 10 at Atlanta (ninth place in 2004) during his two-championship Xfinity Series career.
Team Penske’sz Brad Keselowski is the defending race winner, but with Truex’s domination at the other 1.5-mile tracks last year, Atlanta would seemingly fit into his wheelhouse. The challenge is that the surface is older, the track distinctive – different in feel – from the other 1.5-milers where Truex has shown the way.
“I think if you look back at that race, we did run really well and at the end of the race, we were probably the second-best car I think the 2 (Brad Keselowski) had us beat out of the pits,’’ Truex said.
“They had us beat at the end but without their failure at the end we probably would have run second. I think we take it one week at a time.
“I think at the beginning last year we had a brand new 2018 Camry we were trying to figure out and I think we were behind the curve a little bit. To come out of the box as strong as we did in Vegas – it definitely made us feel good. And we knew we still had some development to do and some things to work on to get better. We were optimistic but you never know how it will work out.”
Truex and his No. 78 Bass Pro Shops Toyota team’s focus is more big picture-oriented as a 36-race championship slate would be. But there’s no doubt he’d like to add Atlanta to his mile-and-a-half mastery.
“We hope to try to do it again,’’ Truex said. “Honestly, there are a lot of good numbers there to shoot for. It’s certainly going to be a challenge to duplicate. We’ll just have to see.
“I feel like 1.5-mile tracks are places where I feel comfortable and places where we learned a lot as a group over the years, specifically how to approach them and what it takes. We’ll see if we have what it takes to put it together again this year.”
Truex scored his first win at Las Vegas last year, essentially mounting his title run a week after the Atlanta stop. This year he seems eager to move up the timing on that trajectory.
“I think that this is a good first chance to see how we stack up against the competition and feel as compared to years past,’’ Truex said.
“This is a great racetrack, it’s a lot of fun to race here. I look forward to it. It’s a good place to kick off the season as far as getting off the superspeedways. We’ll just see how it goes but I feel good so far.
“We have a lot to accomplish this weekend.”