Driver of the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing
The number on the side of Martin Truex Jr.’s car this season is changing. The team owner is changing. The sponsors? They’ll be different, too, as will a good portion of the hands that build and work on Truex’s Toyotas. But in Truex’s mind, his new digs don’t feel like an upheaval. In fact, it’s all just closer to his North Carolina home.
“For me, really, things don’t change a lot at all, other than I can just drive down the road 30 minutes and get to the shop like I used to back in the day,” Truex says. “The last five years, I haven’t had that. I’ve had to get on an airplane and fly halfway across the country. That’s really the only change.”
Truex, the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, finished one position short last fall at Homestead-Miami Speedway of becoming the first back-to-back Cup champion since Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight in 2010. He did so by winning four races and netting a career-high 20 top-5 finishes. That earned Truex status as part of last season’s Big 3 — a moniker bestowed on Truex, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick during their routine regular-season dominance.
The day after the title was decided, Truex’s Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team ceased operations. The closure had been announced 10 weeks earlier when FRR team owner Barney Visser cited sponsorship woes and rising costs as prohibiting his continued involvement despite incredible success on-track (the title and 17 wins, most notably) over the past four seasons.
Now Truex is officially a Joe Gibbs Racing driver — displacing Daniel SuÃ¡rez in the No. 19 — after three seasons of serving as a quasi-teammate to the four-team JGR bunch thanks to the tight technical partnership that FRR and the North Carolina-based JGR shared. That partnership included JGR building FRR’s cars and shared information between the teams and drivers.
“Just having that working relationship with the team, sharing information and working with Kyle [Busch] and Denny [Hamlin] and [Erik] Jones — I know all the people there,” Truex says. “I know what to expect from them. They know what to expect from me.”
Truex arrives with plenty of familiar company from FRR. Cole Pearn, perhaps the most revered crew chief in the Cup garage thanks to his cunning strategy and the impressive growth of the No. 78 team, remains in Truex’s ear next season. Joining Pearn in the No. 19 camp is former FRR team engineer James Small, car chief Blake Harris, tire specialist Tommy DiBlasi and others. The successful group will be essential to Truex starting strong this season, not only from the logistical hurdles of the switch but also because of the massive change to NASCAR’s rules governing car construction. After several seasons of diminished downforce, NASCAR has opted to reduce engine power and add more aerodynamic devices at most tracks that slow the cars. Truex is admittedly apprehensive.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always felt like lower downforce was always my friend,” he says. “It seemed like the less downforce we had, the better I ran consistently, the more races I won. Obviously, you look at the last four years, five years, downforce coming off consistently, I feel like we got better and better and better.”
Still, Truex believes that water will find its own level. “What’s most important is having the right people around you, being in a good situation,” he says. “We know JGR is a consistent frontrunner year after year, no matter what the rules are. Having Cole there as my crew chief and our confidence in one another, it’s just such a big part of it. I feel like they could give us any rules package they want, and we’re gonna figure it out.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 6/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)