Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Martin Truex Jr. showed up for Daytona 500 Media Day looking relaxed but speaking of high expectations for his debut season driving the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Truex moved to the Gibbs stable this year after spending five seasons with the Furniture Row Racing organization where he enjoyed the best year of his career – winning eight races (more than his previous entire career total – seven) en route to the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.
Because of the “satellite” working relationship between FRR and the Gibbs organizations, he said the transition to the championship Gibbs group has “fortunately” been relatively seamless. Now he and his crew chief Cole Pearn can join company competition meetings in person instead of via satellite.
The expectation is to win immediately. And often.
“I would say that it was a lot easier,” Truex, 38, said with a smile during Media Day to preview Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX). “A lot less unknowns. Less nervous about it just because I know things. I talk about simple things like I know what their brakes are like. I know what their throttle pedal feels like. I know what kind of steering they run.
“When I’ve switched teams before it’s like starting over a lot of times. When I went from DEI (Dale Earnhardt Incorporated) to MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing) it was like completely starting over. All new people. All different parts and pieces. All new equipment. Everything felt different. The approach was different. That’s where you kind of have that anxiety of how’s this really going to be. I think it’s going to be good, but I don’t know.
“There’s so many questions when you switch teams like that. For this transition for me, it was a lot easier because we worked so closely together the past couple of years. We’ve essentially built our cars together. We used all the same stuff – parts and pieces, engines, you name it. I’m familiar with all that. I’m familiar with their process. The way they do things. The way they work together. The way their meetings are. You name it, it’s a comfortable change. For me, it’s been as easy as it’s ever been to switch teams like this year.”
Obviously the first big goal for Truex is a good showing in the Daytona 500. The closest he came to winning it was the closest anyone came to winning it – one-hundredth of a second. He finished alongside Denny Hamlin – now a teammate at JGR – in a finish so close officials had to review it.
Ultimately Hamlin hoisted the trophy. Truex is still pursuing it – eager to add a Daytona 500 triumph to his championship career. He has three top-10 finishes in 14 races and was 18th last year.
“I guess it can be frustrating, but anything that big is not easy to get,” Truex recalled, shaking his head. “It’s just the way it is. You look at Dale Earnhardt, it took him 17 tries or something – 20. He won the most races at Daytona of anyone ever and he hadn’t won the Daytona 500. That just shows how hard it is to win.
“I don’t think that’s changed over the years. You look at a guy like Trevor Bayne – he came out of nowhere and won the thing and never won any other races. It’s one of those races where crazy things tend to happen. Huge stories tend to come out of it and that’s part of the reason why it’s such a big deal.”
This year, in this circumstance, it would also be a statement.
Truex is driving for the fourth team in his 13-year fulltime career. He won races for the previous three and would love to land Gibbs a fifth Cup title.
Last year he made a run at back-to-back championships – unofficially a part of 2018 “Big Three” – comprised of eight-time race winners Kevin Harvick and Truex’s new teammate at JGR, Kyle Busch. Truex was a four-time winner and the threesome were the year’s winningest.
“Everybody in the garage wants to be one of those guys that are looked at as ‘here’s the guys to beat every week,'” Truex said. “We all want to be there.
“It’s been fun to be in that position for a couple years. No guarantee that we’ll be there again. You never know who’s going to figure it out quick and come out – some guy could come out of nowhere this season, you never know because it’s going to be so different. I don’t know.
“There’s a lot to learn. I really don’t worry about all that stuff. I worry about results. I want to win races and if we do our jobs and if I’m happy with the job I’m doing then yeah, I’ll probably be one of those Big Three.”