Heading into Speedweeks, Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 1 on the side of his Chevy was synonymous with the one piece left alone from a desperation merger. Now, that “1” stands for something far more exciting – Daytona 500 polesitter – closing out a weekend that’s given hope to people looking for some different faces up front next Sunday.
“The guys felt good about this all winter,” Truex said after pulling what had to be labeled a minor upset. “They’ve felt like they’ve had a shot at coming down here and sitting on the front row for the 500. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to sit in that seat and drive that thing.”
He wasn’t the only “lucky one” on Sunday, either. Truex’s surprising ascension to the top finished up a weekend filled with surprises. The top five in qualifying was a list of drivers with something to prove: Truex, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya and Bill Elliott. Each one of them has their own sob story to tell for 2008; and for at least one fleeting moment, they’ve put the same old stories of Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards simmering in the background of their Speedweeks success.
But perhaps no one feels more vindication than the man whose Chase bid was robbed by a devastating 150-point penalty in Daytona last July. Once Truex’s Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection that day, the driver knew his bid for a second straight Chase was ruined, coming close to breaking his contract after a six-week suspension of crew chief Kevin Manion left him floundering in midsummer. Even after choosing to stay put for 2009, the whole team was put through the ringer of a sudden partnership with Chip Ganassi once DEI’s other sponsors and drivers flew the coop. It was a scenario that would have rattled anyone into thinking they made the wrong choice; instead, it’s Truex who’s entered this season with the right degree of focus.
“One thing that’s never changed is having Bono and the guys on my team on my side,” he said of a team that remained largely intact – while everything around them fell into chaos. “That’s a comfortable feeling for me. I know how good they are. I know that we can get through a lot together, and I just put a lot on their shoulders and they’ve helped carry me through all of it.”
In a touch of irony, runner-up Martin was one of those teammates who left for greener pastures, signing with Rick Hendrick for one last chance at a championship. But even though the aging veteran is back with one of NASCAR’s big-money teams, the feeling of nostalgia towards his full-time return to the series leaves him an exception to the rule of despising their dominance. Most wouldn’t mind a 500 win from a man that’s tried and failed more than Dale Earnhardt (0-for-24 at last count); and even at the ripe old age of 50, he’s thinking another shot at the Great American Race is at hand.
“When it started dwindling down to where you could count on one hand your shots at the Daytona 500 and then it started going down – four, three, we don’t know anymore (this became important),” he said Sunday with a realism that has you remembering 2009 could be his final chance. “This is the crown jewel of stock car racing, and everything else that I’ve done in my career would fit around it.”
Nothing else in Tony Stewart’s career has been quite like this weekend, his first as a driver/owner in the series. With Hendrick support, everyone knew Stewart would be good this early; but after grabbing two podium finishes on the weekend for his team – third in the Shootout in his No. 14, then third in 500 qualifying with Newman – he’s certainly pushing things ahead of schedule.
“We have had three awesome days in a row and I hope it stays this way,” Stewart beamed once he backed up Newman’s qualifying performance with a top-10 run of his own on Sunday. “I hope it’s not just a dream. When we have a good day like this, it just makes me feel more comfortable that everything is falling into place the way it should be.”
So far, so good; but a quick chat with the reigning 500 champion revealed that confidence hasn’t quite spilled over – yet.
“Ultimately in a situation like this, you don’t want to expect too much because you set yourself up for disappointment,” Newman said with the type of downplay you’ve come to expect from the quiet guy from Indiana. “(But) I am really proud of how we have come off the truck and the way the teams are working together.”
Behind Stewart-Haas on the speed chart is EGR with Montoya, the lone remnant from a Ganassi organization that watched the rest of its NASCAR side fall to pieces last season. He’s also one of the few open-wheelers left after the conversion disaster of 2007-08, and the sole man with a victory to his credit. Could the runner-up finisher at Talladega last Spring do one better in the Great American Race? Much of the attention was focused on Truex – and rightfully so – but it’s hard to ever count this Colombian out.
And then, there came perhaps the greatest story of all on Sunday; 53-year-old Elliott. Yes, the same Elliott who won a Daytona 500 pole way back in 1987; 21 years after setting a speed record that still stands – driving the No. 21 Ford back to prominence for the Wood Brothers one year after they failed to qualify for the Great American Race. Not bad for a man who said last March that 2008 would be his final season, only to be coaxed back one more time by a team that may have needed his star power to survive in a world where tradition is dying by the day. How quick of a turnaround is it for this team? So quick that Elliott was mad he didn’t do better after pacing the field for both practice sessions on Saturday.
“I’m disappointed for those guys that we didn’t sit on the pole, but on the flip side I look back a year ago when we ended up loading that Motorcraft Ford and going home,” he said. “It’s such a fine line. We’ve got to make sure we get a good, solid qualifying run because, to me, (you succeed) in steps.”
And with that, one of the sport’s most legendary drivers left us with the most important point of all. Yes, this was a weekend in which other teams not named Gibbs or Roush reminded us they’re still alive. Even in the Bud Shootout, it was the lone Richard Childress driver who didn’t win in 2008 – Kevin Harvick – taking the checkered flag in one of the most exciting exhibition races in years (terrible format notwithstanding). All of that gives hope that there are people in place to challenge the existing world order, providing a greater level of parity NASCAR desperately needs with the dearth of new faces entering the series. But in order for hope to turn towards reality, these teams still need to kick it up a notch when men like Johnson, Busch and Edwards kick themselves into gear. Because beating them for one lap is one thing; 500 miles is a whole other challenge altogether.
“It’s just qualifying,” admitted Truex. “This is just the first step. As we saw [in the Shootout], it’s going to be wild, the cars are going to be a handful – and they’re going to need to handle good to race well. But we’ve never had a car this fast down here, and I’m more excited about this week than I have been coming down here in a long time.”
And after a weekend where the middle class fought back, that glimmer of hope is looking to stretch for 500 miles next Sunday.