Four NASCAR Cup Series drivers have a busy week ahead full of obligations leading into Sunday’s finale and the championship fight.
Martin Truex Jr. is not one of those drivers.
“I’ll be in the woods all week,” Truex says with a laugh. “It’s disappointing not being a part of it, obviously. It’s a really fun time of the year to be in the fight, in the hunt.
“But it is what it is. We’ve had our chances, and this year it didn’t pan out. I think for us, we focus on next year and how do we get back there. I know we can, and I just look forward to the challenge.”
The woods are a welcome distraction for Truex. It’s also a stress-free environment from what his counterparts are experiencing, something that Truex has felt quite often.
Truex had become a familiar face in the championship hunt over the last five years, having qualified for the title race in four out of those five attempts. In those four years, Truex finished no worse than second in the points.
But this year, for the first time since 2014, Truex didn’t even make the postseason. Since the regular season finale at Daytona in August, Truex and the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 team have flown under the radar with a lot less attention on them: a side effect of not being a playoff driver.
“We’re just kind of doing our thing,” Truex says. “Not much attention, not much, I guess, to worry about other than trying to win a race. That was kind of our goal, and I feel like we’ve been close a few times. Especially [at Homestead]. Yeah, just going about our business trying to fix our issues and learn as much as we can to be ready to go next year and be better.”
Truex says there were no huge changes in the team’s attitude or agenda once they were locked out of championship contention. At this point in the season, everyone in the garage is set with what they’ve got, and the hope is to find something for next year.
Truex’s team has had some pit crew issues and is working on getting everyone dialed in. There will be also some changes to the Next Gen car again next season, including all three manufacturers being allowed to make hood updates.
“Team-wise, we feel good with what we have with people and personnel,” Truex says. “So, it sounds silly, but we really haven’t changed a whole lot other than we’re not worried about points. That’s really, legit, the only thing that’s changed. It’s like, OK, we don’t have to worry about stage points, so we can try to win races.
“That’s all we’ve done differently, aside from maybe trying new setup stuff and experimenting a little bit. We’re just trying to check boxes and do things we were maybe worried about doing before because we were worried about giving up a handful of points in the situation we were in (in the regular season).”
It’s been a curious season for Truex and company. The lack of a win is unexpected, and it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. There have been a few races where Truex looked primed for a victory only to have it snatched away – most recently Homestead, where he was spun by Kyle Larson on pit road while leading inside 50 laps to go.
Truex is 17th in the standings going into the season finale only because he missed the playoffs. His performance in the regular season had him inside the top five in the championship standings before everything was reseeded.
He will be the first one to say it’s just been one of those years. But unlike in 2014, when Truex had an “absolutely dismal” and “miserable” season, he is adamant that 2022 has been nothing like that. Truex knows his team can perform at a high level, and he isn’t questioning if he can get the job done.
Three points, which Truex can go back and find, kept him from the playoffs over fellow winless driver Ryan Blaney. He understands that racing goes in cycles, and he was bound to go from the last few years of great success to fighting for all he can this season.
Not that it makes him feel any better.
“It’s frustrating,” he says. “It’s very frustrating when you know what you’re capable of as a group, and you can’t get it done no matter what you try. It’s literally one of those years. I’ve had them in racing before. No matter what you do, it’s wrong.
“We’ve battled against a lot of things and not gotten the job done at the end of the day. We’ve got to be better. Some of the things that have happened to us have been unforeseen, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it, right? But I think, as a whole, next year, our main focus will be being consistently fast.
“That’s the one thing we’ve lacked this year. You look at short tracks and road courses, we’ve really struggled. As a whole group, for sure, but I think from us maybe a little bit more. Just hopefully, car-wise, we’re in better shape next year for that.
“The big tracks, the places we’ve been good in the past, we’ve been good, and we’ve had a shot at winning. We could have won six, seven, eight races. It’s crazy to think looking back, but just didn’t get it done, and a lot of crazy circumstances.
“I don’t know… some days I’m just like, what in the world? What do we have to do to have something not go against us? We don’t need any good luck or special breaks to go our way. We just need the weird stuff to stop happening.”
‘Frustrating’ really is the best word to describe both Truex’s season and how he feels. It’s not like it’s been a bad year, nor has the team been terrible on the racetrack, as the numbers show. Granted, his top-10 finishes could be higher (he has 15), but Truex has also led over 500 laps.
Lack of consistent speed brings to light shortcomings in the team’s execution during race weekends. Then there are ill-timed cautions and bad luck. Everything that could bite Truex, has.
“Yep, it has,” he says “Like Darlington, a water pump flips over. I’ve never had that happen since I started racing cars, period. So, yeah, it’s been a little strange. We had the most stage wins before the playoffs [started] that’s another feather in our cap, but we didn’t lead the last lap.
“So, it doesn’t matter. I would have given all those stage wins for one final checkered flag. We just have to look at everything and try to minimize mistakes and fix the things that have cost us, and hope those other things stop happening. That’s really all you can do; focus on what you can control, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Trying hard.”
So strange has his season been that Truex often laughs while addressing it. Except unlike in years past or when he came up the racing ladder, Truex isn’t looking for good luck charms. Having a down year isn’t new to him, so he fully understands that if hard work continues, eventually, it’ll turn around.
Hopefully, included in that turnaround is the elusive win. Truex has won at least one race in the last seven years, and Phoenix Raceway is his last chance to extend that streak to eight. And that’d be one way to regain some attention.
“I guess it kind of matters,” Truex says of keeping his winning streak alive. “At the end of the day, nobody cares and it’s not like anyone is going to remember you didn’t win this one year. But personally, for your own satisfaction, you want to be a guy that can win every year and consistently, and we are. Just because we did not, I feel like everybody still knows we can. [Homestead] was the perfect example.
“We’ve had plenty of opportunities. If we weren’t leading laps and battling for wins and those things, I would be frustrated as hell. But since we have, it’s not really that big of a deal to me. More frustrated that we couldn’t finish the deal off so far.”