Nobody in NASCAR is making a bigger current impact than Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Toyota…on and off the track.
Even the most casual NASCAR fan is likely familiar with the axiom “if you ain’t first, you’re last”, the catchphrase of Will Ferrell’s titular character from the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
Martin Truex Jr. is at least partially defying that trope as he works his way through the final stages of the premier Cup Series’ regular season.
The tradition of posing the top three race finishers on a podium has rarely made it to NASCAR…that’s probably for the best these days with social distancing still necessary…but if they did exist, the footprints of the Mayetta Township, NJ native would perhaps be etched into the platform. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has finished in either second or third place in eight of the last nine races. That streak continued last weekend, as Truex was the silver-medalist in both halves of a Saturday/Sunday doubleheader at Dover International Speedway.
“It has definitely been good to run right out front, be running top three,” Truex said after the race on Sunday. “That’s where you need to be running to make your way through the playoffs.”
The Cup Series’ regular season ends in grand fashion on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the iconic superspeedway, known for producing surprise winners, will host the final lead-in to the 16-driver playoff.
Truex doesn’t have to worry about his invitation to the postseason, as the win at Martinsville allows him to compete for the seventh consecutive season. Still, once the playoffs start at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend, an extra win may come in for the No. 19 squad. Recent events have allowed Truex to surge to fourth place in the standings, but, with only a single win to his name, he will own the sixth seed once the playoffs begin. The NASCAR playoff system affords five extra points for each win and one more for every stage triumph. Truex has earned seven such points, which would place him 11 points ahead of the first cutoff. Drivers placed 13th through 16th after the first three playoff races will be eliminated from championship contention.
If anyone knows about the importance of postseason bonus points, it’s Truex. His 2017 Cup Series title, won when he was driving the No. 78 Toyota for the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing, began with a 48-point advantage over the original cutoff thanks to a plethora of wins, stage wins, and the regular-season title. It was the biggest advantage for a regular-season points leader until current point leader Kevin Harvick set himself up with a 54-point lead after his seventh win of the season on Sunday. That tally might only increase depending on how things go at Daytona.
“Obviously, we wish we could have won a few more,” Truex said. “Our bonus point situation isn’t the greatest, and that’s something that we’ve really been working hard on trying to get some more here lately. Just seems like we’re always just right there second or third.”
“Overall it was good. It’s good momentum. It’s good to be consistent. We’ve just got to keep working to find a little bit more.”
This unusual season is Truex’s second in a Gibbs Toyota after FRR shut down due to financial woes. While many employees from the No. 78 came over with Truex, his championship crew chief, Cole Pearn, left to pursue other opportunities in auto racing, including a role as a pit road analyst on NASCAR.com. In Pearn’s place went James Small, who served as an engineer on prior Truex endeavors. But, save for a brief two-race stint on Erik Jones’ No. 77 during FRR’s heyday in 2017, Small had never been a crew chief at any of NASCAR’s national levels.
Truex himself admitted prior to the All-Star Race exhibition last month that he “didn’t know we’re where we want to be”, the challenge of a new crew chief only exacerbated by the lack of practice and qualifying in an attempt to trim race weekends down to single-day endeavors. But the past few races have built a strong rapport in the No. 19 garage, one that will be exceptionally dangerous come playoff time.
“He’s doing a great job,” Truex said of Small. “I think for his first year, he’s doing good and making good decisions. I think the biggest thing is leading the team, and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. It’s not just how fast is our car going and how are our finishes and how many races have we won and all that. There’s a lot behind the scenes going on there.”
“All the guys really have a lot of respect for him, all the team guys, and the guys working on the cars and mechanics and everything,” Truex continued. “He gets along well with all the other crew chiefs. So all those little things. He really fits in well, I think, and does a good job. Again, he’s really similar to Cole, I think, and obviously learned a lot from him and has been around him a long time. I think he’s done a really fine job, and I think for us, the communication is going well and we’re on the same page.”
Even if Truex hasn’t left the impact he has desired to leave in the winner’s circle, he’s going on to leave a huge impact off the asphalt.
Prior to Sunday’s race, Truex’s self-named foundation announced a partnership with The NASCAR Foundation that will raise money for cancer research. Fans will have the opportunity to bid for a spot to nominate a “cancer hero” to appear on a car across NASCAR’s three national series. Suggested nominees have been described in a release as “a childhood or ovarian cancer champion or a medical provider who made a difference during a cancer patients’ battle”. Over 40 drivers have agreed to partake in the endeavor, with bidding running through September 1.
The charitable endeavor hits close to home for Truex. His girlfriend Sherry was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in 2014. The two have been together since 2005 and formed the foundation two years later, during his days driving the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud of the idea that the girls came up with it at our foundation,” he said. “It’s been a tough year for us fundraising, and with COVID and all that’s gone on, our big fundraiser of the year had to get canceled. It’s been a bit of a challenge to try to raise money to continue helping all the great people that we’ve been able to have partnerships with and things.”
“I’m really excited about this thanks to NASCAR for teaming up with us and allowing us to do this, and obviously all the teams that have so far agreed to do this…just really proud to be able to do this and continue to help raise money for women and children battling cancer.”
Further information on the Nominate a Cancer Hero Program can be found here.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags
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