Journeyman driver Ryan Truex has begun his 11th season in NASCAR competition, making the switch to Niece Motorsports (and back to the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series) for 2020. He drove for JR Motorsports in six races last year, with a best finish of second at Phoenix Raceway.
The previous four years of Truex’s career spanned three different teams: Hattori Racing in the Truck Series in 2016 and 2017, Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2018 and JR Motorsports last year. 2020’s partnership with Niece Motorsports marks his fourth team in five years – across two different series.
Truex won back-to-back K&N Series East titles in 2009 and 2010. The New Jersey native has made 147 total starts across NASCAR’s top three divisions, running 23 races in 2014 for BK Racing’s Cup Series team. He scored an Xfinity Series playoff appearance in 2018, but has yet to visit victory lane in any of the three series despite coming close several times.
Beginning his part-time 2020 campaign at Atlanta, Truex will next run for Niece at Kentucky Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in July.
Frontstretch caught up with Truex to discuss his new team for 2020, a decade of racing in NASCAR and what he did to keep himself busy during quarantine.
Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: You started your 2020 season at Atlanta with Niece Motorsports. What have you seen in the team so far?
Ryan Truex: Yeah, they remind me a lot of Hattori Racing as far as how they got a lot of notoriety really quickly. I think Ross [Chastain] was kind of the guy that that got them to that point, obviously bringing [crew chief] Phil [Gould] in and having him and Ross work together, I think helped them – just to have all that experience helped them really come out of the gate strong.
Obviously, this year, bringing in Ty [Majeski] full-time and having Ross around a bunch, [and] guys like myself and Jeb Burton, we’ve all had a lot of experience in the top three series. I think three of the four of us have ran in Cup, so we’ve all kind of been around and seen a lot. So it kind of feels like a veteran team, even though it is a young team, and there’s a lot of veteran guys there, which just helps them show up and know what they need. And it feels like a just a true race team. It’s not flashy and it’s not over the top. They’re just all true racers and they all want to work hard and show up to the track and when and it shows.
Cheek: When you got to Atlanta, Niece ran four trucks there. What was that like being with a new team in 2020?
Truex: It’s so different just because of the way we have to show up to the track now and not really see each other. You know, you’re kind of stuck in your little bubble with your team and it’s you and your crew chief and a few mechanics up until the race starts, so it’s a little different just because I don’t get to really see those guys at the track. I can’t really go over and talk to the other drivers… we don’t have practice to get things dialed in or compare notes or anything really – it’s all done at the race shop.
With that being said, it’s a little different. Obviously, we all had speed, a few of us had issues. Me and Jeb both had some damage early, and I think Ty had some issues on pit road, but we all had speed. We all are showing up to the track with no practice or anything, we all unloaded how we needed to and all I think hit the setup right. So it was different, it was weird for sure just showing up and racing – it’s something I’ve never done before. And not racing for me since, I think it was September, at the [Charlotte] ROVAL was the last race I actually ran. [At] Kansas I blew up on lap 2 or 3, whatever it was. So I really didn’t count that as a race. So for me it was it was tough, just showing up after that much time off and having to just get basically thrown to the wolves.
Cheek: You hadn’t been in a truck since 2017 at Homestead, when you were with Hattori Racing. Did you notice anything different with the trucks over those three years?
Truex: Definitely. I think truck racing has evolved a bit since then, as far as the way guys race each other and how hard they race, and there’s not much give and take out there – and I think a lot of that is just a lot of the younger guys coming in that don’t have the experience. For me, most of those guys I’ve never raced against before – aside from a few guys like [Matt] Crafton and [Johnny] Sauter, guys that have been in the truck series for a while. Most of the guys I raced with when I was in the Truck Series have moved on to Xfinity or Cup or running different things. So, really, the hardest thing for me was knowing who I could and couldn’t race around – kind of who I could trust, who I knew wasn’t going to get loose underneath me and slide up into me. Little things like that that you don’t know unless you’re racing with these guys every week, so that was probably the biggest challenge for me.
Obviously, the motors are different now with the Ilmor engines. When I ran we still had open motors, so getting used to that was different – the shift points are a lot different, they just feel different. They react differently, the clutches are different, and aero-wise, I think the trucks have evolved a little bit because of the engine change. So all that little stuff is things that you would learn in practice. So for me, it’s just trying to figure out as much as I can and experiment early in the race. Once we kind of got in a groove, I didn’t have to worry about all the little things.
Cheek: Over the last four years, you’ve bounced around between Hattori, Kaulig, JR Motorsports last year, and then Niece this year. What has all of that change been like every season, and has it affected your approach to racing at all?
Truex: It’s honestly tough not being able to come back to a team. I felt like [at] Hattori Racing, we had built that team over the past two years, 2016 running part-time and then going full-time in 2017. When I started there in 2016, I think they had five employees and two trucks, and it just took us a year-and-a-half to really get it off the ground. By the end of 2017, were in a position where we could compete for race wins, and we started leading laps and getting poles. I knew going into the offseason and having those three months to get everything rebuilt, do everything we needed to do to be really good for the next year. They were able to do that, obviously, and that showed when Brett got in the truck. That was tough, not be able to come back and prove that I could win races. But to still be a part of that and help them build that team feels good and feels rewarding to know that my feedback, what I needed in the trucks and what we were able to work on was the right things.
It’s tough having to bounce around and learn new people. That’s the hardest thing – every year working with a new crew chief, new guys on the team, new engineers, different types of cars. All that stuff is hard to do. It’s not an overnight change or process, so having that’s been tough but I’ve sort of learned how to get as much as I can off the track, so when I do get in the car or truck, I know what I need.
This year has definitely thrown me for a loop with everything going on, but the good news is we’re on the same playing field, which I think probably helps me a little bit just because I have so much experience at all these tracks and in all the three different series.
Cheek: You were at Atlanta – or on your way to Atlanta – when everything hit the fan with the pandemic. What did you wind up doing for those two-and-a-half months to keep yourself busy?
Truex: It’s hard to find stuff to do, when you’re not allowed to really leave your house. I did do a lot of iRacing, which, I realized how bad my computer was and my rig was, so I ended up building a new computer. That was kind of a cool learning process and updating all my stuff and getting to where I could actually be competitive. At first, I was pretty terrible, and I’ve been doing it for a long time, so that was fun.
Aside from that, just trying to stay busy in any way you can so you just don’t go crazy sitting at home. I obviously went on a lot of walks with my dogs and things like that and tried to stay in shape. Aside from that, it was just kind of try not to go crazy and keep myself occupied.
Cheek: I’m guessing you were in Charlotte during [the pandemic].
Truex: Yeah, for the most part.
Cheek: Would you want to have been quarantined with [brother] Martin at all, or would your brother be a good quarantine-mate?
Truex: Probably not. He wouldn’t bother me, that’s for sure. … We’re not very talkative people. And even when I like go to his motor home to hang out at the track, we say maybe 10 words to each other, but that’s just the way we are. So I don’t think it’d be bad, because we probably wouldn’t see each other because he’d be in his garage working on all his little projects and stuff, and I’d be playing iRacing. Toward the end there, he started getting on iRacing, got his rig set up. He was fast right away. He’s been doing sim racing for as long as I can remember, but we could probably set some rigs up and have some good times for sure.
Cheek: As for the iRacing during quarantine, what was it like trying to race into the Pro Invitational Series races and communicating with the other drivers in a much different setting?
Truex: Honestly, it was like super nerve-racking. The very first one I think was Homestead, and I was in the last transfer spot in the heat race to get in the big race. I was like crazy nervous, like my hands were shaking, I was sweating, more nervous than I’d be in the real thing. I think just because you don’t have that distraction of having to focus in iRacing, if you hit the wall or if you spin out, you just reset. But in real life, you can’t do that, and I think when you have that in the back of your mind you, don’t have to focus quite as hard because you know that you can reset. It’s hard for me to explain it, but I feel like in the real thing, I get such tunnel vision and I’m so focused that I don’t have time to really think about what’s going on or time to get nervous.
On iRacing, I was like crazy nervous, and to know that everybody was sitting at home watching and I was on the bubble, I was the last guy to make it in and I had somebody on my bumper. It was nerve-racking, but it was fun, it was cool to be a part of it. [Racing] with the Cup guys, all of us have the same equal equipment and show guys like Timmy Hill and people like that are able to get in the same equipment and have the same ability to go fast and have the same race craft as the top Cup guys.
Cheek: You were right about to start with Niece for the season at Atlanta, so how much of an effect did it have to put your debut for the year on hold?
Truex: Well, the toughest thing for me was that I have a part-time schedule. Once that happened, I was on the way to the track when they canceled the race. I had just left my hotel, and I was heading to the track. It was so open-ended once they canceled the race that we didn’t know … when we were going back racing, we didn’t know where we were going back racing. I didn’t know if the tracks that I’m racing at were going to get canceled or when they’d even be rescheduled, so for me it was all about waiting for the schedule to release before I even knew if I was racing as soon as we went back or if I was waiting more months.
That was the hardest part for me is just not knowing what the schedule is gonna look like. Even now, I know where my next two races are, which are Texas [Motor Speedway] and Kentucky [Speedway], but past that, I don’t know when we’ll race or where we’ll race, what tracks we’ll go to. All that is still kind of up in the air, so that’s the hardest part for me for sure.
Cheek: You’re one of the more active drivers on social media, interacting with fans and other people within the sport. How has that helped you grow your brand and been an important aspect of your career?
Truex: Social media is the biggest tool I have, when you’re not at the track every weekend, when you’re not on TV every weekend, when you’re out of sight, out of mind. For me, it’s the best way to connect with my fans, for them to get a true perspective of who I am and what I’m about. I’m definitely probably a little different than most drivers, I always want to have different merch and a different style and don’t really want to go the normal route, and I try to convey that as much as I can.
I think the ‘Go Ryan’ thing is a perfect example of that. It kind of reflects my attitude and my personality a little bit. I’m very simple, but I’m also very different and I don’t like to be like everybody else. So I thought that was a good way to show that, and everybody loved it. Obviously, having Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. be a big fan of that helped a lot too. But yeah, social media is what I have to use to make things happen, and like I said, that’s how we’re able to build a relationship with [sponsor] Marquis [Spas], connect with the fans and do everything we can do outside of the truck, outside of the car, so I can be in the truck or the car more often.
Cheek: You ran six races last year at JR Motorsports with backing from four different sponsors across those races. You finished second at Phoenix Raceway and had four top 10s overall. How did that partnership come about with JRM and running those races?
Truex: It was really cool. I’ve talked with Dale a lot over the years about driving for him, and we’ve been close on deals before, but things just never shook out quite how we wanted to. At the end of 2018, once I knew I wasn’t coming back to Kaulig, I actually texted Dale one day and I just asked him what [they] had going on next year. He let me know, and from there we just worked hard to put some partners together, and luckily for me, the No. 8 car had openings.
It ended up being a perfect situation, because I didn’t have full-time sponsorship, but I had that six or seven races’ worth. We were able to put that together, and it was a great year. We finished top 10 everywhere where we didn’t have issues. Kansas [Speedway], obviously we blew up early in the race, and I think it was Vegas that we had some issues, like electric issues or something. We showed that we had good speed. … That second-place finish right off the bat was really cool, to finish second to Kyle [Busch] at Phoenix of all places. It was a good start to the partnership, and, obviously, I wish it had grown into more. Obviously, the goal is to be racing full time, but to continue that partnership with Chevy, and then to be able to stay with the Chevy team for this year has been good too.
Cheek: Regarding that race at Phoenix, you were sponsored by the MTJ Foundation and Catwalk for a Cause. What did being sponsored by your brother’s foundation mean to you, and how has being related to Martin paralleled your career?
Truex: It was really cool to have the foundation on there, Sherry Strong and everything. Obviously the Catwalk is a huge event, and it raises a lot of money for kids that need it. To kind of help get awareness and to run that well with that brand on the hood felt really good, and I know it felt really good for Sherry and Martin to see that up there. I wish I could have won with it, would have been super special to do that. But to be able to support the foundation and everything they do in a small way like that was really cool. As far as being brothers with Martin and how successful he’s been, it definitely gives me hope, the way his career has gone. If you look at everything he’s been through and dealt with – and the highs and lows – the highs have way exceeded the lows. Which, at the time, we never would have thought that at one point he didn’t think he’d be racing anymore after everything that happened in 2013. So, when I get down or I don’t have much going on, or [I’m] scratching and clawing to get to the Cup Series, I can kind of look at that and see that you can overcome a lot…and to never get too down and don’t let people ever count you out, because if you just don’t give up and keep digging, you can make it happen.
Cheek: You won back-to-back K&N Series titles about 10 years ago. How do you reflect on that accomplishment a decade later and how it impacted your career?
Truex: I still can’t believe it was that long ago, honestly. It does not feel like I’ve been doing it for that long. I mean, it was huge. I started racing when I was 14, and I won my first K&N championship when I was 17, so things progressed super quick in my career. It always seemed like I’d win in something and instantly move up. Unfortunately, after that second K&N championship, the year I moved up to race Xfinity, [it] was probably the toughest year for young guys to break into the sport. I think the only other guys I can think of that were coming up then were [Ricky] Stenhouse [Jr.] and maybe Trevor Bayne. As far as people that were younger, I mean, I was 18 – I think they were a year or two older than me, but that was a tough time for sponsorship, tough time for young guys coming in. That was back when Cup guys were racing for Xfinity championships, so there were three or four Cup guys every weekend – you know, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, like top tier cup drivers, which I think you know, racing against them taught me a lot, especially that at that young and when I got to drive, you know, Gibbs cars and good equipment like that. To learn from those guys was huge,, but as far as my timing I felt like I was two or three years too early coming up into the national level. If you look at 2013, you had [Kyle] Larson and a bunch of young guys come into the series, and it seemed like the viewpoint of that series started to shift more from the second tier series to more of a development series where guys are – they’re making their name, which is what it’s all about. Now, when I came in, it just wasn’t quite at that point yet. So my timing was definitely a little off coming up, but we all have to deal with what we got and work with it. If you had told me then that I’d still be fighting as hard as I am to stay in the sport, stay relevant, I would have thought it was crazy. But that’s the hand I’ve been dealt, and once I make it to the top, it will be that much sweeter.
Cheek: When you came up to Xfinity in 2011, you ran with Michael Waltrip Racing, and most recently competed in the series last year with JR Motorsports. How different has the series become in that 10-year span?
Truex: It’s completely different. I’m not sure how many guys still even racing in the series that raced in it then as far as as veterans go. I guess [Justin] Allgaier is probably one of the only ones that’s still a fixture in the series. Most of the guys that I came in racing with, guys like Elliott Sadler and people like that, most of them have gone on to retire or do something different. Some guys have made it to the Cup Series, but the I think the average age has gone way down, for sure it’s gone way down. Like I said, that the viewpoint and how people look at the series has changed a lot – it’s turned more into, like I said, that development series where the prospects are coming up and people are looking at them to move to the Cup Series. You didn’t have guys, doing the truck-Xfinity-Cup kind of way to the top back then, you know. It seemed like guys would run K&N or ARCA and then they’d go straight to Xfinity and trucks was more of the…I don’t even know you’d call it, like the veteran series. It wasn’t seen, in my opinion, as another stepping stone like it is now. I don’t know it’s all changed a lot. And, obviously, having Xfinity come in has been a big part of it and trying to…give that series an identity, obviously it’s got a great identity now with the Dash 4 Cash and limiting the Cup drivers and everything they’ve done having the playoffs. It’s changed…obviously the cars are more or less the same. 2011 was the first year, I think, that they ran the the CoT full time in Xfinity, so my first year part-time in 2010 I think I ran four or five races with the old body and then the rest with the new one. So that was another thing that, when I came in, was completely different, running the old body style more like the old steel body cup cars. So it’s just changed a crazy amount.
Cheek: As for this year, how did your partnership with Niece come about, from getting into talks with them and coming on to run with them in 2020?
Truex: We talked to them a bit in 2019, and we tried to put a full deal together for this year. Unfortunately, just kind of ran out of time and resources, but I’d seen their performance and was able to get a little help from Chevy to start those talks and those negotiations. Obviously, I wanted to get in something that I could win in, that was my biggest goal. We got close with JRM, but I knew I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to come back there. I’d looked at the Truck Series, and I thought as far as where my sponsor stood on everything, it was a good fit for them. I feel like I have some unfinished business in the Truck Series after 2017, and I thought Niece was my best shot, and we started getting to talking and everything just kind of fell into place and worked out perfectly.