Facing a 175-race winless streak, Truex isn't satisfied with top-10s
The novelty has worn off. It's no longer enough to finish well. It's time for Martin Truex Jr. to win.
And he knows it.
Truex thought that victory would come Sunday. He dominated at Kansas Speedway before his car turned cantankerous late. Shortly after radioing his crew that his ride was "wrecking loose,'' he watched Denny Hamlin dash by to take the lead. And the win.
Hamlin's charge prolongs Truex's angst. His lone NASCAR Sprint Cup victory came in 2007. Since then, 27 different drivers have won at least one Cup race. For those who consider Dale Earnhardt Jr.s' 137-race winless drought unbearable, consider this: Truex's streak climbed to 175 races at Kansas.
He's had only a few great chances to win during his drought. When he won at Dover five years ago, he was with Dale Earnhardt Inc., but that was his last season as Earnhardt's teammate before NASCAR's most popular driver left for Hendrick Motorsports. DEI struggled and merged with Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2008 season and the results didn't improve. Truex left after that year for Michael Waltrip Racing, an organization that had never reached its potential entering this season.
Through the years, Truex watched as others celebrated. Jimmie Johnson has won 28 times since Truex's last victory, Kyle Busch 19 times, Tony Stewart and Hamlin 17 times each.
That history rode with Truex at Kansas, as he withstood a challenge from Johnson and then Hamlin before Hamlin came back.
"I knew that he [Truex] was driving his heart out,'' Hamlin said.
Truex's valiant effort to reclaim the lead nearly ended in a wreck three laps from the finish. His car fishtailed out of Turn 4 as he tried a self-described "desperation, last-ditch effort'' to pass Hamlin.
Heart, though, can't overcome a car that won't obey a driver's orders. So as Hamlin relished his second victory of the season, Truex pondered defeat.
"I guess if we can be this disappointed with second, it shows how far we've come as a race team,'' the 31-year-old New Jersey native said.
The runner-up finish marked his fifth consecutive top-10 finish, the longest active streak in the series. Going back to Talladega last October, only Stewart has scored more points than Truex.
In that sense, Sunday was another sign that Michael Waltrip Racing can challenge the sport's top teams.
"This is a big day for us as a team,'' Truex said. "It's kind of a statement for us that we're here for the long haul, we're here for the rest of the season. We're not just a flash in the pan. We've been solid each week, and I know our wins are going to come, we just need to keep running like we are.''
Truex has shown that strength on a variety of tracks, particularly the 1.5-mile tracks like Kansas, since late last season. He's also been strong on the short tracks, and the series heads to one this week in Richmond.
Yet, Truex's hot streak guarantees nothing. Even though Michael Waltrip Racing excelled in the first eight races, it must prove it can be strong over an entire season. MWR has never had a team in the Chase since running full-time in Cup in 2007.
Win races and it eliminates the notion that the organization is succeeding, in part, because other teams are not. Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing remain winless. Although Stewart-Haas Racing has won three races, it has showed little the last two weeks.
Truex faced a much different question before the season. Then, conversation centered around where he'll drive after this season when his contract expires.
If Truex continues to run as well, it would seem to make sense to stay at Michael Waltrip Racing, especially with what he's invested there. Teammate Mark Martin credits Truex for playing a role in MWR's turnaround. Martin notes that Truex "suffered through the growing pains of that organization and [helped] get it where it is."
Truex's success with crew chief Chad Johnston is an example of the many personnel changes Waltrip's team made in the last year. Johnston, who was Truex's engineer, became his crew chief in July. After a period of adjustment, Truex finished last year with four top-10s in the last five races. That carried into this year and his six top-10s and no finish worse than 17th.
"He understands how to put in the computer what I'm telling him and get the right answers back, and I've said that from day one when he started working on my car,'' Truex said of Johnston.
"He's just done a great job. He's still new at this. He's obviously getting better. He calls a great race, and he's only been doing it for a year. He's a guy that I think we're going to be talking about for a long time down the road as one of the elite crew chiefs.''
But first the pair has to hit Victory Lane.
"Once I get over the defeat in a few hours,'' he said after Sunday's race, "I'm going to look at all the positives, and there're a lot of positives we can take out of this weekend and so far this season. We're not near as good as we can be yet, and we're going to keep pushing forward and try to keep getting better. I know our wins are going to come soon.''
They need to. He's done waiting.
Hamlin Wins NASCAR Bracketology Title
The championship of NASCAR Bracketology, the single-elimination tournament that paired the top 32 drivers against each other during the past five races, came down to the final lap Sunday at Kansas Speedway.
Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. entered the race as finalists. Hamlin captured the title by winning the race and finishing ahead of Truex, who placed second on Sunday.
Download the NASCAR Bracketology Bracket here
Hamlin, the champion of the Dale Earnhardt Regional, reached the finals by eliminating Casey Mears, Jeff Burton, Aric Almirola and Tony Stewart since Bristol last month.
Truex, champion of the David Pearson Regional, advanced to the finals by defeating Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, points leader and No. 1 seed Greg Biffle, and defending NASCAR Bracketology champ Dale Earnhardt Jr.