At Bristol in August, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were racing for second place when Busch made contact with Truex and sent him spinning into the wall. Truex crashed hard, and his chance to win was over.
At the Roval (watch below) in September, Truex — who will move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019 because his former team, Furniture Row Racing, was shuttered — was in the lead and in sight of the finish line when Jimmie Johnson dive-bombed into the next-to-last turn. Johnson lost control and ran into Truex, which caused him to spin. By the time Truex got going again, Ryan Blaney had cruised by for the win.
And four weeks later at Martinsville, Truex and Joey Logano battled side by side in the closing laps. Truex entered the final turn with the lead, but Logano hit him from the rear, which knocked Truex sideways and allowed Logano to drive off for the win.
Three times in just a few months, Truex was taken out while battling for a win late in a race. All three times, they were on moves that Truex would not have tried himself. And all three times, the NASCAR world expected Truex to exact revenge. He never did.
That leads to a simple question: Is Truex too nice?
No less an authority than Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes so. After Logano knocked Truex out of the way at Martinsville, Dale Jr. suggested on his podcast that Truex needed to stop racing so clean. But Truex has heard such protestations for his whole career. He just shrugs his shoulders and says, No, I’m not changing. He’s going to race the way he races — and that means always erring on the side of clean racing. Truex is the rare driver who races people the way he wants to be raced, as opposed to how they race him. The distinction is important — and lost on most drivers. But not on Truex.
“At the end of the day, I know that when I beat a guy it’s because I outdrove him,” Truex says. “It’s not because I took a cheap shot and ran into him.”
In using “cheap shot,” he was referring specifically to Logano’s move. But to be fair, most NASCAR analysts would not call what Logano did a cheap shot. NASCAR has long been a full-contact sport, and Logano’s move was not particularly aggressive. And Truex acknowledges that not everybody thinks the way he does. “Some people think it’s perfectly fine to knock somebody out of the way to get a win,” Truex says. “In my opinion, it’s not.”
There’s something undeniably admirable about Truex’s stance. In a sport in which most drivers say they would do anything for a win, Truex says there are lines he won’t cross, and he proves it by not crossing them, even if it means he has to settle for not winning. There’s an old cliché about a driver being willing to wreck his grandmother for a win. Truex won’t wreck anybody. He’d rather finish second clean than first “dirty.”
“I try to do things the right way. I try to race the way I want to be raced. Sometimes I clearly get taken advantage of because of that,” Truex says.
That’s really the key issue. Is he right? Does he get taken advantage of? Do other drivers race him differently because they know there will be no consequences for their actions? That’s hard to answer definitively.
It’s not fair to say that Busch, Johnson or Logano made those moves because they knew they could get away with them without payback. It’s more likely true that those drivers would have made those moves regardless of whether it was Truex or someone else. Still, it’s also fair to say that Truex has a reputation as a clean driver. If that means that a fellow driver will knock him out of the way because he knows there won’t be consequences, Truex can live with that. So is Truex too nice? Yes and no.
“You race fair, you race clean, you race as hard as you can, you try to beat the guy straight up,” Truex says. “Every single win I’ve ever had, I’ve earned it.”
—by Matt Crossman