Previews, predictions and stats for Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 56 team
In theory, Martin Truex Jr. should be smiling broadly about 2012. For the first time in five years, he was an actual points contender throughout the 26-race regular season, and he easily qualified for the Chase — a feat improbably matched by his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer. Truex grabbed a pole at Texas and nearly tripled the number of laps he led over the year before. Peaking in a contract year, he also announced an extension that keeps him in the seat of the No. 56 Toyota, with NAPA Auto Parts on board through 2015.
That’s enough to deliver a glowing review of the season, right? Not quite. For all the improvement, Truex entered the offseason winless and spitting mad.
“(We) run top-two all day and finished sixth. Story of our season,” he said, disheartened, after the season finale in Homestead, Fla. “I don’t even know what to do about it. We didn’t even finish top 10 in points, which sucks. ... (We) should have won four races (in 2012) and we just kept giving them away.”
Truex isn’t far off in his assessment. When the money was on the line, the No. 56 driver and team managed to create ways to lose races. At Texas last spring, Truex was up front late before he slid through his pit box during a green-flag stop. The next week in Kansas, he led 173 laps before the set of tires bolted on his car for the final run didn’t agree with the setup; he lost to Denny Hamlin by seven-tenths of a second. Next was the Labor Day weekend race at Atlanta, one he had in hand until a late caution exposed a car that was slow on restarts. Finally, fuel mileage issues kept him from a battle for the win in Homestead.
It was a sob story of disappointment set amid a season of consistency — even though team co-owner Michael Waltrip felt Truex exceeded expectations. The key behind the MWR resurgence, aside from the right personnel, has been top-level horsepower. Toyota Racing Development, which produces engines for MWR, joined forces with Joe Gibbs Racing’s engine developers at the end of the 2011 season. Improved speed and efficiency have been the results for MWR’s entries. Truex suffered just one blown powerplant last season (November, Phoenix), and gains were evident in the five poles won by MWR — the most for the team in a single season. The 32-year-old Truex also scored the most lead-lap finishes of his career (29) and set new highs in average finish and average start – both of which were a robust 12.1.
The New Jersey native welcomes crew chief Chad Johnston back to the pit box this year, and it’s a good match. In 55 Cup starts together, the duo has scored 25 top-10 runs. In Truex’s previous 202 Cup starts — most of them with head wrenches Pat Tryson and Kevin “Bono” Manion — he totaled 47 top 10s. Chemistry between driver and coach is unquestioned.
Another perk for Truex is the talent of the crew charged with slapping new rubber and filling the fuel tank of his Toyota. The team enters 2013 as the defending champions of the sport’s 11-year-old Most Valuable Pit Crew award. Taking that title is no gimmick, either, as the honor is given after a vote of fellow crew chiefs in the Sprint Cup garage.
“They were fast, but most importantly, they were consistent,” Truex says of his mechanical support.
After 2012, with a career-low two DNFs, those adjectives could also be applied to the driver. So, we ask again, why enter 2013 so hopping mad? For the answer, we turn to his win total, one, unchanged since a 2007 Dover victory with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. that put him on the Cup Series map. Like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose obsession with his winless streak nearly derailed a strong 2011 season, frustration with coming “close, but no cigar” left Truex drained. At some point, running so strong but not getting over the hump begins to hurt you. Until Truex bursts through that wall with MWR, there is little chance he will be a real championship contender or — considering that four race-winning drivers failed to make the playoffs last season — a repeat Chase participant.
For teams like MWR, it is easy to get complacent after a successful season. The taste can be intoxicating enough to forget that Truex was the only winless Chase driver in 2012 and scored the second-fewest top-5 finishes among title contenders. Several teams are ready to pounce on Chase spots in 2013, and Truex won’t be among them unless he can stop that victory drought — and avoid the cancer of frustration that comes with it.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 56 team appeared to be on the verge of big things in 2012, but the long-awaited visit to Victory Lane never materialized.
“He’s rather hot and cold,” a crew chief says. “Truex started the year off really well, made the Chase and then folded up. Through adversity or whatever you want to call it, you have to be there at the end, and he and his team didn’t do it when they paid the money. He is a solid contender every week but has had trouble sealing the deal.”
Another agrees with the sentiment, but notes that some issues were beyond the team’s control; other’s, though, were not.
“There were some things that happened to the team that were unavoidable, like their engine failure at Phoenix, but some of it is self-inflicted, too. When the bad luck hits you just have to persevere. Unfortunately for his team, the bad luck hit at the worst time and kept them from making a run at the title.”
“This is a team that’s right on the edge of winning multiple races,” one media member says. “But the difference between a title-contending bunch and a mid-packer is the title contenders find a way to deliver even when things don’t go their way.”
Looking at Checkers: Only one win in seven full Cup seasons, so nothing is guaranteed with Truex.
Pretty Solid Pick: The team was close a number of times in 2012, though. Namely at Kansas, where they had two runner-up finishes.
Good Sleeper Pick: Six top 10s in eight starts at Homestead.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The plate tracks, with only five top 10s in 31 points-paying starts.
Insider Tip: As impressive as the consistency was throughout the 2012 season, Truex failed to close out a race. Until this team proves it can win races, it will be a fringe Chase outfit.
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