Thomas Bowles · Sunday June 17, 2007
The world of sports, filled with emotional highs and lows, can be as rough as it is rewarding to the people that choose to enter its realm. Capable athletes can sometimes go their entire careers searching for goals that prove forever elusive. Silver medals, runner-up finishes, and close losses do nothing but rub salt on the wounds of achievements dreamed of but never accomplished.
However, there is something to be said for the momentum achieved when you get over that hump. Just ask John Elway, winner of two straight Super Bowl titles after going sixteen years before he won just one. If you can't reach him, phone Michael Jordan; he checked off three consecutive NBA crowns after falling short for half his career.
Now, I wouldn't put NASCAR drivers Martin Truex, Jr. and Casey Mears in that elusive pantheon of superstardom just yet. However, their finishes speak volumes as to just how critical it is to get that pressure-packed goal of Victory Lane checked off the list, leaving their upward trend of future success the talk of the NASCAR garage this month of June.
While neither driver left the Irish Hills with a trophy Sunday, M stood not just for Michigan but for momentum for these two; Mears came home 4th, his third Top 5 finish in the last four races, while Truex took home his third consecutive podium finish after nearly running down Carl Edwards in the closing laps to take the win. Add them up, and that's six Top 5s for NASCAR's newest first-time winners in the past four weeks; consider that at this time last month, the two young drivers had just eight career Top 5s in 181 career starts.
Boy, what a difference a trip to Victory Lane can make.
"We just keep clicking off Top 5s," explained Mears after his race on Sunday. "We’re in a position right now where we’re running really well. We’re not taking chances and going for it, we’re getting points and we’re building something here."
For the first part of the season, all the No. 25 team was building was the pieces of wrecked race cars - Mears spent most of March and April flirting with the Top 35 on the heels of several performances that left much to be desired. The low point came at Talladega; Mears had a possible winning performance going before getting spun out by teammate Jimmie Johnson entering pit road, leaving best friends briefly at odds and the confidence of the fifth-year driver in question.
But it was at that point where Mears incidentally came up with the answers. After four years of running Dodges, the Hendrick Chevrolets had proven to be a driving transition far more difficult than he ever would have expected. What appeared to be a relatively meaningless 18th place finish at Richmond the next weekend was actually a subtle indicator of things to come; the next week, Mears was running in the Top 10 at Darlington until his engine blew with 22 laps left. Finally matching style with equipment, all he needed was a little luck to get over a hump that nearly had him battling for a qualifying spot.
The end of May, he got it in the form of a fuel-mileage victory that broke a 156-race winless streak; more importantly, the first win was packaged with the type of confidence needed to get on a roll.
"We’re learning a lot and I think each race we go into we’re going to get better,” claimed Mears. "Real happy with the way the guys are gelling and the way this No. 25 team is coming around."
Meanwhile, the other end of the garage has seen Truex busy saving face for an organization trying to reshape its future. The announcement of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. leaving rocked the racing world at Darlington, perhaps jolting no one at DEI more subtly than Truex. The right-hand man at DEI the last two seasons, Junior's imminent departure sent a message loud and clear; there would be a new No. 1 at his old organization, and the man to take on that new role was none other than the driver of the No. 1 car.
But to do that, Truex needed to pick up the pace. Up until then, a so-so Cup career for the 26-year-old had been a microcosm of frustration; the absolute opposite of consecutive Busch Series title runs in 2004 and '05. Wherever bad luck lived, Truex would find it, evidenced by three trips behind the wall in the first five races this season.
That left much to be desired for a team that expected more from themselves. But with a media circus surrounding their soon-to-be-former teammate's every move, the No. 1 group became ever closer, bonded together, digging deep within to produce a series of solid performances rivaling any they've achieved at any level so far. Leading just 16 laps all season, forgive everyone for being a bit surprised that Truex led 216 en route to a shocking victory at Dover, surprising not just for how it was won but in the way the No. 1 team put together consistency from start to finish. In one sweeping four-hour masterpiece, gone was the downtrodden mentality of a man stuck in a year-and-a-half slump; for the first time at racing's top level, Truex was assured he could compete with the sport's best.
The confidence boost from pessimism to optimism proved complete for Truex on a Sunday where he could have easily shot himself in the foot. After leading 51 of the first 63 laps, an ill-fated pit strategy left Truex midpack following the race's second caution. What ensued was a nasty wreck on a lap 75 restart that left Truex spinning on the backstretch, leaving not just a win in doubt but any chances at a Top 20 finish.
During a rookie season of inconsistency, that would have been the perfect recipe for an emotional Truex to take his hard luck frustration into a wall shortly afterwards, forcing him to the garage where he could kick the curb and wonder what might have been.
Now, two weeks after an unmistakable high, Truex visualizes the best-case scenario, goes out, and overachieves. On Sunday, he wound up second.
"In past experiences, I might have got a little hot, got a little ticked off and maybe not used the perfect judgment on my way trying to come back through the field," he explained. "As you get to finishing good and running up front, it kind of calms your nerves. You don’t get so upset when things aren’t going exactly perfect because you know you can overcome them. There’s no question that you can overcome problems, so it definitely helped today with us getting back to the front.”
In terms of making the Chase, both remain on the fringes of contention; Truex is 10th and Mears 19th, and while both could make a title run, neither are being compared at the level of Gordon, Johnson, or Stewart quite yet. However, considering these two were little more than a blip on the NASCAR radar screen last month, momentum has a funny way of making people pay attention over time.
"I feel confident anywhere we go with these guys behind me," Truex said of his crew on Sunday. "I don’t think there’s a track we can go to that we can’t run well."
"We got the monkey off our back."
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