Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DOVER, DE – Martin Truex Jr. fully concedes that Dover (Del.) International Speedway feels like home to him.
The reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and New Jersey native scored his first career Cup victory in only his third start on the notoriously tough Dover miler and then won again in 2016. In the last eight races at the track he has seven top-10 finishes. The eighth? An 11th place. He’s led a combined 509 laps in the last six races and has led at least 100 laps three times during that span.
If that provides a dose of optimism for Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Truex, 38, and his Furniture Row Racing team will certainly take it. He’s had a rough April, crashing out in three of the last four races including last Sunday at Talladega, Ala.
“First time I came here, I fell in love with the track and I think any time you like a place you tend to understand it better and are able to just figure it out just a little bit quicker,” Truex said of Dover.
“I guess coming up through the ranks figuring out the feel that I needed at this race track and what it took to be successful is something that I’ve carried through all the teams I’ve raced for and all the series I’ve race in here. Been able to use that throughout the years to be successful and I feel like the numbers don’t even show really the success that we’ve had at this track.
“I’ve had so many really good races end in heartbreak here and of course we’ve won a few along the way as well, so it’s not been stats-wise I guess – I don’t even know if it’s my best track – but definitely performance-wise I think it’s up there with one of our best.”
Dover is one of three tracks where Truex has multiple wins. And he’s won three pole positions here – second only to Ryan Newman’s four among active drivers. More than half of his 24 starts have resulted in top-10 finishes (13) and another telling statistic at this traditionally tough venue – Truex has only two DNFs in 12 years of Cup racing here.
His driver rating (97.2) is fifth best in the field – and that’s with two drivers – Chase Elliott (four) and Kyle Larson (six) – ranked higher with only 10 starts between the two of them.
All that said, Truex smiled Friday when asked if he has Dover all figured out.
“It’s very challenging – one of the most challenging on the circuit just from a standpoint of how it can bite you, how hard you have to attack all the time and, you know, the consequences when you mess up are pretty bad here,” he acknowledged.
“It’s definitely a difficult track in that mindset. For me coming here initially, it took a while to get up the nerve to get to where I needed to make the car. It was like, ‘okay, I keep going and driving harder and harder and harder and the car still wants me to go faster,’ you know?
“So once you figure that out, from there it’s really all just about through the years adapting to changing race cars, changing rules, tires changing, the track changing as it ages and just continuing to try to stay on top of all those things I think is the biggest challenge now. But certainly in the race, 400 laps here is quite a challenge as well, so that’s something you need to keep up with.’’
Truex knows what he needs to do. He scored five top-five finishes in the first six races of the season, including his first win of the year (from the pole position at Fontana, Calif.). He led the points standings for the first time since hoisting the 2017 Monster Energy Cup following that California victory.
But the last four weeks, his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota team has suffered through uncharacteristically tough luck. He’s had three finishes of 25th or worse – including a 37th place finish at Texas Motor Speedway where he completed only 80 laps of the 334-lap race.
He’s ranked ninth in the standings entering Sunday’s race, the lowest he’s been since a 12th place in the season-opening Daytona 500. He wasn’t ranked lower than seventh all last season after a 17th place showing the 2016 Daytona 500 and he led the Cup standings for the final 19 weeks of the season en route to claiming his first championship.
“I think that I’d say our sport probably changes more week-to-week than it does year-to-year and so we’ve had four tough races in a row right now and we’re ninth in points, so I mean you’re only as good as your last race so they say and right now I wouldn’t say we’re the hunted – I’d say we’re the hunters,’’ Truex said Friday.
“Just trying to get back on track and get to where we need to go and, you know, for us I think we always tend to focus on our program more than anything else and I think I’d say most of the garage is the same way. I think the championship was last year and it’s time to turn the page and try to do it again right now.”