Martin Truex Jr. was all easy smiles, not always a given during the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Truex stood in Victory Lane at Martinsville Speedway after his dominant win on Oct. 27, in which he led 464 laps. With the victory, he became the first driver this season to secure his spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway this Sunday. But in this moment, he only had eyes for the grandfather clock, awarded to the winner at Martinsville since 1964, that had eluded him through years of disappointment at this track.
In 27 previous races at Martinsville, Truex had only five top-five finishes. He came so close in 2018, leading in the final laps before Joey Logano (eventual 2018 champion) bumped him in the final corner to sneak ahead for the win.
“Last year we felt like we had that one locked up, and then we got bumped on the final lap,” Truex says. “The history of that track and what it means to our sport is incredible. The win (at Martinsville) is huge, not just because it locks you into Homestead.”
So, yes, punching his ticket to the Championship 4 after a season that saw his former team, Furniture Row Racing, fold, and saw him join the venerable Joe Gibbs Racing alongside veterans Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and young gun Erik Jones, was certainly a major accomplishment for Truex.
But in this moment, in Victory Lane, all he could talk about was that grandfather clock.
“I had no idea he hadn’t won there, and in Victory Lane he was all excited about the grandfather clock,” says Joe Gibbs Racing president Dave Alpern.
“I said, ‘He didn’t have one of these?’ We have so many grandfather clocks at JGR because we’ve won that race so many times. We always know what time it is because everywhere you look there’s a grandfather clock,” Alpern laughed.
Truex’s first career win at Martinsville symbolized how joining heavy hitter Joe Gibbs Racing has enabled him to take the next step this year — but also how Truex’s talent, which has only shone brighter as he has progressed in his career, has propelled the team this season as well.
“In the competition meetings, drivers are talking to each other about what’s worked and what hasn’t,” says Alpern. “Kyle has made Denny better at some tracks, Denny has made Kyle better at some tracks. And Martin and Cole (Pearn) have made them better at some tracks, too.”
“What it’s all about is the people around you having confidence in the things you say,” Truex says. “The big reason for our strength as an organization is the experience of our drivers, even Erik, as a young guy. A few of us have won championships. All our information put together can help them build cars faster and better.”
“On weekends now, we all learn something from each other,” says Truex.
Alpern recalls the popular idiom: “A rising tide raises all boats.” Indeed, heading into Sunday’s season capper at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Joe Gibbs Racing, for the first time ever, will have three drivers in the Championship 4 — Truex, Busch, and Hamlin. No owner has ever had more than two drivers competing for the title. The last to do it was … Joe Gibbs, with Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in 2016. Now, three veteran drivers who work together six days of the week will find themselves competing on Sunday for the right to hoist the 68-pound Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy.
“It’s a good position to be in,” Alpern acknowledged. Still, “it’s nerve-wracking.”
“We’re the only team that’s ever had more than one car in the final race,” Alpern continued. “We were first and second with 10 laps to go and didn’t win a championship. When you go with multiple cars in the final it’s an interesting dynamic. All the executives from all the sponsors go. You have great relationships with these people, and you know one of these groups is going to be upset at the end of the day.”
Meanwhile, Toyota, Alpern said with a laugh, is like Switzerland. If any of Truex, Busch, or Hamlin wins, the manufacturer is happy.
What is the dynamic between these three drivers, who, as soon as that green flag drops, will become competitors? “You don’t have favorites, but Denny and FedEx have been at this for 15 years, and you want so badly for them to have a chance. Kyle has had a great season. Martin and Cole, they deserve it,” Alpern says.
How much competition between drivers is healthy, and when can it become distracting or counterproductive to the team’s overall goals?
“It’s only distracting if you have personality problems or you get run-ins on the racetrack,” Truex says. “For all of us, especially with Kyle and Denny, we’ve raced together for a long time, we have a mutual respect for each other. We’re all very different; we don’t hang out outside the track. Our approaches are different. But the team can take different things from each of us.”
Now that Truex has had time to reflect on his move from FRR to JGR this season — necessitated by FRR sponsor 5-hour ENERGY pulling out in 2018, just one year removed from Truex driving the No. 78 Toyota Camry to a championship, and leaving a $10 million hole the organization could not fill — he can say with certainty it’s been a positive one.
That much might have been expected, but was certainly not a given. The move wasn’t earth-shattering, thanks to the alliance FRR had enjoyed with JGR since 2016 that saw the latter building the former’s chassis and providing pit crew support, among other things. Still, it was yet another left turn for Truex, whose career has been full of them.
A journeyman since he arrived at the Cup Series level in 2006, Truex had stops at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (which soon became Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) and Michael Waltrip Racing before landing at Furniture Row. That, of course, is where he really began to display the elite driving he’s now known for, racking up 17 victories and three Championship 4 berths en route to his first championship in 2017.
Between 2006 and 2015, however, Truex had just three wins. Compare that to 2016 through today, a stretch in which he’s racked up a whopping 23. In fact, Truex is the first driver to win at least 19 times in a three-season stretch since Jimmie Johnson won 20 from 2008 to 2010 — something he didn’t even realize he had accomplished.
“That’s great. That’s really great, and it means a lot,” Truex says. “I can remember some of those years when I wasn’t winning races, and you’re watching a guy like Jimmie win all those things, and you’re thinking, ‘I wonder what that would feel like.’”
“The last couple years, I feel like every single weekend we can win. Even if we don’t have a great practice, I always feel like my guys will give me what I need.”
There’s no doubt the addition of crew chief Cole Pearn in 2015 took Truex’s team to the next level. He’s honored that Pearn and some other team members were willing to make the move from Denver to Charlotte. “The most important thing in this sport is the people who are around you and the people making the big decisions on the cars. Keeping our group together was really important, and we’ve been able to see the benefits of that this year,” Truex says.
Indeed, Pearn and his team have been instrumental in helping Truex. The No. 19 Toyota was able to adapt to the new aerodynamics package NASCAR introduced this season. This was a particularly challenging rules package change in a sport that is always tinkering with them. New this season were measures to add downforce after NASCAR moved away from that in recent years, as well as a reduction in horsepower to a target goal of 550 (from 750) on tracks more than a mile long. The goal is tighter racing that’s less about aerodynamics and more about putting the race back in the drivers’ hands.
It took a few races for teams to maximize their cars under the new rules. To wit, the No. 19 Toyota did not earn its first win until Week 9. For a driver of Truex’s stature, it wasn’t too worrisome. But no doubt, Truex was chomping at the bit to start performing for his new organization.
“We needed time to get our arms around this package and what it needed,” Truex says. “I had to drive the car a lot different. We ran second at Atlanta early in the season, and we felt like we could have won that race. We started chipping away and putting things together, and we got that out of the way. This car is difficult to deal with; every single track, it needs something a little different.”
But Truex’s success as the season bore on, collecting seven of JGR’s total 18 wins, falls right in line with perhaps the defining quality of Joe Gibbs teams: adaptability. This year’s rules package changes threw many teams for a loop. It has, on the other hand, allowed JGR to do what it has always done best.
“If you look throughout Coach Gibbs’ history, Joe has excelled when there’s adversity or major changes,” Alpern says. “Both times the NFL had strike seasons, Joe won the Super Bowl. He figured it out better than anyone else and quicker than anyone else. When there have been significant rules package changes, JGR has adapted quickly, and we’ve come out of the gate better than anyone.”
Now, the only thing standing in the way of Joe Gibbs Racing’s fifth championship is Stewart-Haas Racing and the driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang, Kevin Harvick. Standing between Truex and his second Cup Series championship are his teammates. Make no mistake; Truex is here to win. But no matter how the season ends, even if another JGR driver comes out ahead after those 267 laps in Homestead on Sunday, this season has been all Truex could ask for.
“I’ll say for me that it’s been a great experience,” Truex says. “I’ve had a lot of fun this year, and when you’re having fun in this sport, you’re doing good.”