Let’s get one thing out of the way: Unlike 2016 Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg, Martin Truex Jr. has every intention of defending his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship this season. A walk-off retirement isn’t in the cards.
“I thought about it,” Truex said sarcastically last fall amid celebrations of his 2017 title in Las Vegas. “I said it to Sherry (Pollex, his girlfriend), and she was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m just kidding.’ I worked so hard to get to this point, I’d like to try to stay at the top for a little while, at least.”
There’s no doubt that Truex indeed hit the peak of his career last season as he both dominated the schedule as a whole and then delivered the best championship-winning performance by average finish (4.3) in NASCAR’s postseason era, besting Jimmie Johnson’s incredible 2007 run of a fifth-place average through the final 10 races. Truex’s title, however, came in the four-year-old playoff format that requires the champion to beat three other eligible drivers in the winner-take-all season finale. He marveled that both he and his team could be so routinely dominant and then back it all up when it mattered most as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch (Truex’s technical alliance teammate) threatened to pass before the checkered flag waved at Homestead.
“This is a tough one, you know? This is a tough one to win,” Truex says. “Even as great as our season was, I think all of us are still surprised that we were able to get it done because it’s the playoffs, and we’ve seen what happened to us last year in 2016. One bad round and you’re gone.”
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But Truex got it done, and he proved along the way that he was more than deserving of being held in the same regard as any of NASCAR’s other elite drivers. Reaching that level of recognition may have been more gratifying for Truex than any of the trophies, awards or checks that came with last season’s title.
“You never really know what people think of you,” Truex says. “I felt like maybe a lot of people thought I wasn’t really a great driver for a long time because I wasn’t getting the results. I start to get the sense now that people respect my abilities behind the wheel a lot more. That’s what means the most to me, especially my peers because these are the guys that you go to battle with every single weekend.”
This season will mark the second time in Truex’s career that he’s worked to defend a NASCAR title. The first time he was in that role — Truex won the XFINITY Series championship in 2004 — he came out swinging and won back-to-back championships. Expect a similar performance this season, thanks to Truex’s return in a dominant Toyota Camry with a Furniture Row Racing team that plans to systematically address small cracks in the team’s armor under the guidance of crew chief Cole Pearn — likely the most valuable team leader in NASCAR.
“I think we just continue to pick each area, just like we have the last couple years,” Truex says. “We try to get better results in every area. That’s what we do, whether it’s qualifying better at a certain race track or just figuring out maybe how to try to win at Martinsville.”
Once a liability, the Denver location of the FRR shop should help the team retain its behind-the-scenes talent, Truex says, giving more credibility to the belief that the No. 78 can run up front on a regular basis this season. “It’s definitely going to be hard to repeat, but I think performance-wise I feel like we’ll be right there, and we’ll be able to win some races, and put ourselves in position again,” Truex says.