What a difference a year makes for Martin Truex Jr. One year after struggling through a nightmare season with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, recording a career-low 23rd-place finish in the points with just one top five, the 29-year-old is one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. Sitting 12th in points driving a NAPA Toyota that was once struggling to simply crack the starting lineup each weekend, NASCAR’s top nominee for Comeback Driver of the Year has already exceeded expectations in competing with David Reutimann for top honors at new employer Michael Waltrip Racing. And after Truex was fastest in happy hour Saturday one week after running second in the All-Star Race, he’s suddenly a darkhorse for today’s Coca-Cola 600.
How has the turnaround come so quickly? Our Mike Neff had a chance to find out, sitting down with the New Jersey native after final practice to find out how everything just started to click, why he doesn’t consider himself a “number one” driver within a team, and whether the NAPA Know How commercials really bother him.
Mike Neff, Frontstretch: You made the move from DEI and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates to Michael Waltrip Racing. Would you compare the cultures between them, and what it is like driving for MWR?
Martin Truex Jr.: I’m not exactly sure what it is that makes MWR as great as it is. I mean, it is just so much fun to work there, and the guys are so proud of their work and what is going on. I think a lot of it has to do with how far they’ve come in such a short amount of time. You think about it, they haven’t had the success that the some of the other teams have had, so all of this success and stuff is new to them. They really take a lot of pride in what they’re doing. So all of these great things we’re doing now together they really appreciate and are really excited about; it’s not like they’ve been there before. It is new, it is exciting, and it is so refreshing to get to be a part of this… their determination and drive and excitement and to be looking forward to everything that is going on. It has just been a lot of fun.
Neff: What is it like working with Pat Tryson vs. Bono Manion? We know you were with Bono for a long time.
Truex: I don’t know that it is that much different. To compare the two is kind of difficult because they are different. Me and Bono had a lot of great years together. We accomplished a lot of things together, and it seemed like it ran its course. We kind of got stale together; we weren’t figuring new things out, we weren’t being as successful as we had been in the past, and the frustration with that led to our separation. He’s still one of my best friends and is a great crew chief; the changes that went on have obviously helped both teams and has been good for both of us.
Working with Pat has been good. He’s got a lot of experience, having worked with a lot of drivers before, and had success with a lot of drivers before made it easy for him to figure out how to work with me. I’m easy to get along with, he’s easy to get along with, so that part was really easy as far as us getting along, spending time together, and liking to spend enough time together to really figure out what’s going on. That was the easy part. What I’ve been impressed with is his leadership; the way he leads the guys on the team, you can really sense the respect the guys have for him and what he’s trying to do. They believe in what he’s trying to do and what he’s telling them to do, that goes a long way and that’s a big part of our success this year. Everybody believing in each other, going out and doing our job… it’s just been really fun.
Neff: How much fun is NAPA as a sponsor, and how much grief do you get over the commercials?
Truex: The commercials, I had a lot of fun doing them and a lot of the fans really enjoy them so that’s cool. I do catch a little bit of grief but whatever it takes, they were big time commercials and I was pretty excited about doing them. NAPA has been great to work with. I’ve been a NAPA customer for years, I was friends with the guy that owned our local store when I lived back in Jersey, so I’ve been a NAPA customer for a long time. Their people, their higher-ups, the guys who run their racing program, their store owners, their employees, all the people that I have met and worked with have been very nice and a lot of fun to be around. All the guys who work on the racing program are behind this deal 110% and are really, really proud of what we’re doing. It makes me excited to get to the racetrack and try to do a good job for them every weekend, because they get so excited about it and really appreciate what we’re doing so much. So it’s been a good partnership, good relationship back and forth.
Neff: You were fastest this last practice and you were really fast last Saturday night. Do you think you’re on the verge of winning; and looking ahead, do you think your experience with making the Chase before is going to benefit the team during this summer stretch because you have been through it before and know what it takes?
Truex: I feel like we’re close to winning, we’ve had some really fast cars lately. There was a time during the Richmond race that we were the fastest car on the track, just never got the track position but we had a really good run there. Darlington, we certainly had a car that was capable of winning. We had a transmission problem, got a lap down, and never were able to get it back. We’ve been showing a lot more speed here lately and with the job the team does, they’ve been giving me cars that stay together. They do a great job on pit stops; obviously, the pit crew has been phenomenal and Pat has done a great job adjusting on the car, so we’ve been able to build that consistency and now the speed is starting to come. So yeah, I think we’re getting close. This weekend, we have a great chance. Obviously it is a difficult race; it is long, and there are a lot of things we’re going to go through, a lot of challenges will present themselves during the race that present opportunities to make changes on the car with the changing track conditions. But I feel like we’re set up well to handle them, and we’ll just go out there and see what we can do.
Neff: Have you thought about running any Nationwide events again?
Truex: I would like to, it just hasn’t been on the top of the priority list, especially this past year going through the wintertime and getting this deal put together. I still want to do some races, just haven’t had the opportunity to put a deal together yet. We’ll just have to see. I told Ty (Norris, DEI VP) this winter that if there was a chance to do some Nationwide stuff, I’d let my brother do it before me. So we’re going to try and get him in some. Obviously, it is more important for him to get the seat time before me and get the chance to do it. Hopefully, he’ll get to do it and if I don’t, that is fine with me.
Neff: This race often comes down to fuel mileage. Compared to the other makes, how do you feel you stack up on fuel mileage?
Truex: I think we’re about average, as far as I can tell ya. I don’t think we’re at an advantage or disadvantage. I think we’re right there with the rest of the cars, just depending on how we’re planning on running the race. There’s things we can do to get max power or back off a little to get better fuel mileage, but I think we’re right there with everybody.
Neff: Seeing where you are in points and how you’re running this year, are you the number one driver at MWR now? Have you taken the Franchise mantle away from David Reutimann, or is there even a hierarchy at MWR?
Truex: David’s still the Franchise, that’s his nickname and I’m not going to change that just because I came here. I don’t really believe in that whole pecking order thing. I believe we’re all teammates, we’re all equal, we all put in the same amount of effort, we all work together. I’ve had a great time working with Dave and Marcos [Ambrose] on our cars and in our competition meetings. We all get along very well and have a lot of respect for each other; that’s as far as I think it ever needs to go. Some weeks David’s been the fastest car, some weeks I’ve been the fastest car, some weeks Marcos has been the fastest car. That’s a good thing for our company that we can all run well, work together, and run the same kind of stuff. I think all of us are on the same page as far as that goes, trying to move forward together… and I think if one of us starts winning, we all can win and I think we all understand that. It has been a really good relationship between all of us, and with me being the new guy it was really cool that I came in and they all embraced me as quickly as they did.