Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday May 2, 2011
Come with me, ladies and gentlemen and take a break from reality this Monday to understand the reality of someone else. Let your imagination drop those wonderful “Osama is dead” celebrations in your head – don’t worry, it’s only for a moment – and allow me to set the scene so the complexities of racing drama are understood.
Ready? Good. Let’s set the scene: it’s Daytona, February, 2010. The sun was setting on NASCAR’s biggest race, a green-white-checkered finish left to decide it; but for Martin Truex, Jr., each moment felt like his race to Sprint Cup stardom had just begun. The driver of the NAPA Toyota, replacing Michael Waltrip in free agency had played the draft perfectly, putting himself in position for victory in just his first time driving the car. Starting on the front row for the restart, he had plate ace Kevin Harvick behind him and as the cars came up to speed, the No. 56 car edged out front. Heading to Turn 1, victory for a fleeting few seconds slipped effortlessly into the hands of a New Jersey native who’s spent his career on the cusp of stardom.
Seconds later, he was using those hands to save a racecar. Harvick, instead of helping had suddenly dived underneath his rival. After moving down to block, contact ensued; Truex was shuffled back to fifth and his chance to win the Great American Race had self-destructed.
Four months later, the whining of NASCAR engines was starting up in wine country, where Truex fighting for a Chase spot at Sonoma in the midst of a promising season. Overachieving with a team that hadn’t scored a top-10 finish the previous year, a man not known for his road course prowess had the fastest car on track at points during the race’s first half. Fighting for position with four-time champ Jeff Gordon, there was hardly reason to worry heading into a hairpin turn; that is, until one NAPA-sponsored car was heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It was a lost of track position that proved costly, one that totaled a Toyota moments later and sent the mild-mannered Truex into a tirade that wasn’t exactly representative of the sponsor-spewing, always-smiling two-time Daytona 500 winner he replaced.
“I’m tired of being the nice guy,” he said five days later, despite a Jeff Gordon apology and lovely flowers sent in the mail. “I’m tired of getting pushed around. Things are going to change. I’m not going to take it anymore.”
A noble statement, but slightly misguided; after all, Lady Luck doesn’t respond well to temper tantrums. Instead, she tends to lose her temper at will, dishing out cruel lessons to unsuspecting victims regardless of fairness. By the end of 2010, it was pain and suffering inflicted all too many times on Truex: a mechanical issue (Dover) and a tire problem (Homestead) helped take two chances for victory away.
It was an ugly summer and an even worse fall; yet despite the chaos, all was not lost. Promising performances throughout the season – Truex and crew chief Pat Tryson scored a pole at Dover, seven top-10 finishes and wound up 22nd in points – made them the trendy pick to crack the Chase in 2011. After all, the black cloud of bad breaks can only last for so long… right?
The first three races for the Truex bunch showcased potential: 19th in the Daytona 500 scrum (after leading 17 laps), a ho-hum 14th at Phoenix, sixth at Las Vegas. Then, there was Bristol; 63 laps led, a car capable of victory, a tire… ultimately deflating. Fontana produced a hangover, followed by two costly wrecks: Martinsville (hung throttle – perhaps the hardest hit at that short track seen since Richie Evans’ death over two decades earlier), Texas (Kevin Harvick tap). By Richmond, Truex had suffered through more bad luck in eight races than Jimmie Johnson does over an entire season.
Certainly, no one’s capable of making mistakes if an entire life is filled with excuses. Athletes, at least the good ones don’t like to pull the extenuating circumstances card if they can help it. But 15 months later, you have to agree this sad story serves as a catalyst, the domino in a long line of frustrations that leads to how a man reaches a breaking point. Truex’s happened Saturday night, a top-5 run ruined by a loose lug nut that forced him into an extra stop on pit road and into a YouTube-like moment for his pit crew (G-Rated version: “You’re fired!”) In an instant, a man known more recently for his NAPA karaoke commercials left Richmond with in-race lyrics Eminem might find too offensive for his next CD.
So what now? It’s a situation Tryson knows all too well, having spent years working with the unpredictable mood swings of Kurt Busch (who was spewing venom on the radio himself Saturday). But in this case, it’s not a personality flaw that’s the problem; more like the weight of an anvil that keeps digging into someone’s back. Some say too much bad luck in racing is not a coincidence; it’s indicative of a much larger problem that needs to be fixed internally. But how do you keep tires from blowing after hitting debris? How do you keep people from playing bumper cars with you by accident? And how do you build confidence when what’s taking it away is an element completely out of your control?
I don’t have those answers, and neither does Truex. Now 22nd in points, 65 out of a Chase spot it’s unlikely he’ll discover them in time to salvage the season. But someone, somewhere needs to help the man out before a mental breakdown ensues. What’s happening is cruel and unusual punishment, the unprovoked type we rarely see get this bad in racing; and what’s more, there’s no guarantee if and when the unlucky breaks will ever stop.
Tough words to swallow, even tougher to enlist damage control in such trying circumstances. But they have to try.
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