Martin Truex Jr. reaches a crucial juncture in his Sprint Cup career in 2013. He made the Chase in 2012, his first since 2007, but he needs to do it again to establish himself as one of NASCAR's elite drivers. However Truex is on another mission equally as important this season: win a race.
In 2012 Truex equaled his career-best finishes with seven top-fives, and had a high of 19 top-10 finishes; however the elusive victory evaded him. It's not that Truex didn't have the ability -- he contended for several races, including Atlanta, Texas and Bristol, and he finishing second in the spring race at Kansas after leading 173 laps.
"We should have won four races and we kept giving them away," Truex admitted.
To say the least, Truex's emotions ran the gamut -- the elation of leading giving way to the despair of failing to close the deal.
"I'm so proud of what we were able to accomplish and where we were able to get to as a team in the past year and a half," Truex said. "We've been really competitive and making the Chase was a big deal and we were consistently a front runner.
"On the flip side, you still want to win. Every single week, that's what you're there for. We took a lot of positives out of last season and the opportunities are there for us to be even better."
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Truex was the Nationwide Series champ in 2004 and 2005 driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chance 2 Motorsports and it earned him elevation to Dale Earnhardt Inc., where he was 19th in his rookie season of 2006. Truex seemed en route to become a driver who frequently made the Chase and contended regularly for the championship after his second Cup season six years ago. He won at Dover in his 58th start, and seven top-five finishes and 15 top-10s carried him into the Chase, where he finished 11th.
In 2008 and 2009, a period when Truex was gaining experience, he slipped to 15th and 23rd in the points.
Truex's move to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010 was a gamble, a lateral move at best. MWR was fundamentally a start-up Cup operation in 2007 with the support of Toyota, and initially, Truex appeared to not improve his competitiveness. He finished 22nd overall with one top-five and seven top-10s in 2010, and 18th overall with three top-fives and 12 top-10s in 2011.
MWR made major changes for 2012, hiring Chase-proven Clint Bowyer and forming a third full-time team, bringing in the ageless Mark Martin -- the finest driver never to have won a Cup title -- and added competition director Scott Miller. That helped the organization made the giant jump from a midpack team to having its two full time drivers in the Chase.
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Bowyer won three races and finished second in the points. Martin had four top-fives and 10 top-10s and was 26th in points in 24 races. Brian Vickers, in Martin's No. 55 for eight races, had three top-fives and five top-10s.
"I can't sit here and tell you it was one thing," Truex said. "The biggest thing was the commitment from our owners, Rob [Kauffman] and Michael [Waltrip]. They made that commitment, backed it up with investment in new equipment and, at the end of the day, we all benefitted from all of that. They plan on doing this for a long time and once they get to where they want to go, we'll be a force to be reckoned with for a long, long time.
"We're a young team and we've had our first dose of real success. I feel like in the next few years, we're going to be one of the great teams."
Miller arrived from Richard Childress Racing, where he'd been a crew chief and competition director. According to Truex, he made a huge impact of the team, especially when putting together the No. 15 team.
"A lot of the [stronger] performance in our race cars started before Scott came in [September, 2011], but he was able to get the right people into the right places and that was a big part of the puzzle," Truex said.
MWR faces, like all the Cup teams, the challenge of developing the new Gen-6 car this season.
"There are so many cars that are different than what we had and it will take a little time to figure it out," Truex said. "Our biggest focus is getting this new car figured out before everybody else."
The Waltrip team rewarded Truex for a succesufll 2012 with a three-year contract that begins this season. Sponsor NAPA also signed for Truex's No 56 Toyota for three years. At age 32, the driver from Mayetta, N.J., knows where he'll be for prime years of his career. He also thinks he knows where he's going.
"I feel really good about where I'm at," Truex said. "I'm very confident and I know [MWR] has a lot of confidence in my ability as a driver. It's fun to be a part of this and now it's time to go out and make things happen. It was a big step last year for us and making the next step is winning races and challenging for the championship is next.
"There's no magic to it, no secret. You try to be smart and be better than the next guy. I've been doing this a long time and my best years are ahead."