The sky seemed like the limit for Martin Truex Jr. in 2007. It was a year of firsts for the Mayetta, N.J., driver as he made his first career trip to Victory Lane and his first appearance in the Chase for the Championship in only his second full Sprint Cup season.
Five years later, Truex is still pursuing his second Chase berth and a second victory, but he's off to a promising start. Thus far, Truex has banked the type of finishes you need to make the Chase, with a 12th at Daytona, seventh at Phoenix, 17th at Las Vegas, third at Bristol and eighth at Auto Club Speedway in California. He's fifth, 20 points behind leader Greg Biffle. It may only be five races into the season, but Truex has shown the speed and consistency to be a Chase contender.
Truex was respectable in 2008 (15th in the points) and in 2011 (18th) and mid-pack in 2009 (23rd) and 2010 (22nd). He had at least one top-five and six top-10s in all four years. He could see the front, but often couldn't find a way to get there.
Truex credits the widespread changes made at Michael Waltrip Racing since the middle of last season for his success. The Toyota team completely reorganized its competition department, bringing in new people to build new cars to deliver to new crew chiefs. Truex is the lone holdover in what has become a three-car team with the addition of Clint Bowyer and the combination of Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Waltrip sharing the third car. Bowyer is eighth in the points. Vickers was fifth at Bristol in his sole start and Martin has two top-10s.
The organization has the speed to run at the front in 2012. For Truex, it's probably the first season since 2007 that he's been in that kind of equipment. His Chase season was with Dale Earnhardt Inc., a team that went into decline following Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s decision to leave for Hendrick in 2008. Truex went through a transition season following the merger with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2009, explaining his drop in the points, and another transition season in 2010 when he joined Waltrip.
Truex changed crew chiefs at midseason last year, swapping Pat Tryson for Chad Johnston, and then returning to Tryson when Johnson was suspended along with two other crew chiefs for the final four races for the use of illegal windshields on MWR-built cars. Despite all this Truex still managed his most competitive season since 2007 with three top-fives and 12 top-10s.
"Really throughout the middle of last year, we were kind of struggling speed-wise," Truex said. "Michael [Waltrip] and Rob [Kauffman, team co-owner] really took a step back as an organization, bringing in [executive director of competition] Scott Miller toward the end of last year, [and it was] certainly a big key. Really kind of restructuring how we did things.
"TRD [Toyota Racing Development] was giving us a lot of input. Toyota had a lot of influence on the direction we headed. We really kind of started from scratch almost. Once we started bringing the new cars out ... we started having good runs, having consistency."
Johnston was re-elevated by MWR from engineer to crew chief in June.
"I think for our team, a big part of that was Chad coming in as crew chief," Truex said. "He was coming into his own, getting some confidence, getting his arms around the team and what I liked in the race car, what the race car liked in general."
MWR also brought in Brian Pattie to crew chief Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota and signed Martin and Vickers to drive the majority of the races in the No. 55. Together, that makes four drivers with Chase experience on the team.
"We brought in key people," Truex said. "We just got an organization right now. We got three cars that seem to go to the racetrack and run really well each week. We're able to feed off each other."
Truex deserves his share of the credit for MWR's jump this season. Yes, he has better cars to drive this year, but he's also a better driver than he was in 2007, with the experience gained the past four years. Truex has gone 161 races since his lone Cup win at Dover, but the next victory can't be too far away. And, at 31, the sky may still be the limit.