Martin Truex Jr. has realized how much love and appreciation he has for racing now that it is (temporarily) gone.
“I think the first maybe two weeks it was like, ‘OK, it feels strange, but it is nice to have a little bit of a break,’” Truex told RACER. “At the same time, we just got the season started, and we were getting ramped up and feeling good about things.
“It’s crazy how fast things can change in this world, and it definitely makes you appreciate what you have.”
Like his fellow drivers, Truex hasn’t been behind the wheel since early March. He’s been waiting out the pandemic by laying low in Florida with girlfriend Sherry Pollex, training their new puppy, fishing and spending time chatting with crew chief James Small about the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
NASCAR returns to action on May 17 in Darlington with two Cup Series races in four days. The same will then apply the following week in Charlotte, where Truex is the defending Coca-Cola 600 winner.
“Just been planning about racing,” Truex said. “Talking to James and the team, trying to figure out what we need to do when we get started back up.”
Truex recently gave a wide-ranging interview to RACER, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: You haven’t been participating in iRacing, so what have you been able to do during this downtime?
MARTIN TRUEX JR: I was a big online racer back in the day, especially when iRacing first started. I was pretty big into the simulator stuff, but got off it for a while. I actually just got a simulator sometime this winter, at a charity auction I bought one. So, I was all set up to do it, but it’s in North Carolina, and I’m not, so I haven’t been able to get back there to get on. I plan on being back there shortly and may try to see if I have anything for them young whippersnappers.
Q: Did you have a ‘welcome to Cup’ moment when you first arrived at the top level?
MT: Oh man, that’s a tough one. I think it was just every week; you took your lumps trying to figure it all out. When I started, ’06, I had teammates, but it wasn’t like it is today where you work so closely together, the team builds all the cars pretty much the same. Back then it was, every team kind of did their own thing. At DEI – it was the 8 car, the 1, and the 15 – and we were all in different buildings. My team was my (Xfinity) Series championship team, so we were all rookies together, so for us, every weekend was a big welcome to Cup moment just because of how difficult it was. We were trying to learn how to race in the Cup Series; we were learning what we needed to do to the cars. I was trying to figure out what I needed to do to step up my game to be able to race with those guys. That season was a huge challenge.
Q: Speaking of cars, you’ve raced a couple generations. Has there been one that has been the most comfortable or fun to drive?
MT: The lower downforce stuff I always felt suited me the best. 2017 we won the championship and the most races, and that’s what we had then. It just seemed like every time they took off downforce, I felt more comfortable. With low downforce, I can make more of a difference, so I enjoy that. Really, all the cars have been fun to drive. Racing in the Cup Series is fun because it’s a huge challenge and that’s something that never changes, it never goes away, it never gets easier no matter how much you’ve done or races you’ve won. You’re always learning, you’re always challenged, and things are always changing.
Q: How vivid are your memories from race to race?
MT: I think you always remember all the details about the good ones, and the bad kind of slip your memory. A lot of the bad races where we were running good and something bad happened, or we just didn’t run well at all, you forget somewhat about those. The ones that went well, you pretty much remember everything about it. You remember things about the setup of the car, things that happen during the race, maybe moments that changed the race for you in a good or bad way.
Q: We hear drivers talk about rhythm and hitting their marks, but I’m always curious to know if there is ever a time when your mind starts to wander. Have you ever caught yourself not paying attention, or thinking about something else during a race?
MT: I feel like I’m pretty good at staying focused, but I think everybody at times thinks about different things, and it’s probably different for everyone. I think if you talk to Clint Bowyer, his mind probably wonders a whole lot more than mine does (laughs). There are times maybe under caution when you think about something else, like what am I going to do tomorrow? What do I have to do this week? But for the most part, you’re pretty engaged in what’s going on.
Q: How has your focus and competitiveness changed over the years?
MT: I think it’s changed quite a bit, to be honest. When you’re making your way through the ranks and trying to prove yourself, especially early in your Cup career, you really take the bad days hard. A couple bad races and you feel like you’re going to lose your job, and that’s a difficult thing to deal with as a young guy. Through the years, you learn to manage your expectations and understand what a good day is and what isn’t. We’ve had a lot of bad things happen this year, for example. I think we’ve had a top three to five car every single race, and we haven’t even finished in the top 10 yet. Luckily stage points have kept us in the game, because we’ve pretty much got crashed out of every race, so that’s frustrating, and maybe a lot harder to deal with if I was 2006 Martin. As you’ve had success, as you feel more comfortable where you are in your career and what’s going on around you, you’re more comfortable in your skin, and it makes it a lot easier to deal with those things. (But) the more success you have, the more you want to win, and the more you know what that feels like, the more you want it, so in certain moments you almost get more determined, more animated, crazy, mad at certain times. It changes.
Q: Where have you improved over the years?
MT: The biggest thing is staying focused when bad things happen, staying focused on the end game. Bad pit stops, loose wheels, things like that – not losing your mind, getting frustrated, and throwing the race away. The last couple of years, we’ve had a ton of issues, and we just keep fighting back; we never give up, never quit. And it’s harder than you think. It can be a big challenge when you’re driving your ass off out there, and something bad happens in the pits, or somebody runs into you and does something stupid. It can be really hard to stay focused.
Q: Is there a mental adjustment in going from rookie to consistently running up front and being a race winner and championship contender?
MT: I think it’s easier to do it when you’re running up front all the time. I think you’re calmer, more focused on what’s going on; you have a lot fewer question marks to figure out, so you can focus on the details more. If anything, it makes things easier. I don’t think racing is ever tougher then when you’re behind or when you’re off, or your cars aren’t right, or you’re really challenged by things that you have to figure out as a team. When you’re dialed in, and your team is doing a great job, you can focus on the details more. Then it gets better from a performance standpoint, and that’s a comfortable place to be.
Q: Give me the best and worst paint scheme that you’ve ever driven
MT: The best paint scheme was probably the Coca-Cola 600 last year: red, white, and blue, stars and stripes and USO on the hood. That was really awesome. And of course, we were able to get to victory lane. Worst paint scheme, I had a lime green TomTom car, I think it was ’09. That thing was butt-ugly. (laughs)
Q: There were some big names in the Xfinity Series when you won back-to-back titles in 2004-05. How competitive was it then?
MT: Oh, it was super-competitive. It was not unlikely to finish in the 20s if you missed the setup. Not crashed, just straight get outrun. We had a great team and obviously won a lot of races and championships, but we missed it a few times and ran pretty bad. There were a lot of Cup drivers in the series back then from different teams. [Kevin] Harvick running for RCR a lot. Tony Stewart ran some races. And even the weekly guys, racing with Kyle [Busch] and with Clint [Bowyer], and Reed Sorenson when he was at Ganassi and strong. There was a lot of really, really good equipment and a lot of good teams and drivers that were very tough.
Q: Are you a collector?
MT: I’m not at all. I keep some of my stuff, but 90 percent of it I couldn’t tell you where it’s at. Which I know I’m going to regret someday, but I’m just terrible at collecting.
Q: Is it hard to believe it’s now 15 years for you in the Cup Series?
MT: Oh, absolutely. It feels like yesterday I just started. Time flies, and I feel like every year goes by faster. The years are flying by, and fortunately, I’ve been able to have some really good ones and surrounded by great people. Been on some great teams and lucky to do what I’ve done. That said, I’m not done yet, and hopefully, the success will continue.