AVONDALE, Ariz.--Despite winning a NASCAR Cup championship, despite winning two Xfinity Series titles, and despite scoring 26 Cup wins, Martin Truex Jr. still can’t garner as much respect as he deserves on the race track.
The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was mired in traffic at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after a pit road miscue and was run over in mid-pack. Last week at Auto Club Speedway, Truex’s own teammate, Denny Hamlin—along with Joey Logano—ran into Truex, leaving Truex to scramble for a 14th-place finish in a top-five car.
Truex and Hamlin cleared the air prior to coming to Phoenix Raceway. Both seemed satisfied with how the conversation went.
“I think we have a mutual understanding,” Hamlin said. “I think we both understand that 550 (horsepower) racing makes it extremely difficult to have teammates a lot of times, because it’s so cutthroat in the way that you have to race out there. You’re trying to… you don’t want to give up any runs that you’ve got.
“It’s a lot like superspeedway racing in my eyes. When you get runs, you have to take them. You have to put yourself in the best line possible. I think we both understand that for sure. I definitely see his point of view and understand his frustrations that he had. I think it was a great conversation and I think we have a better understanding of kind of where each other are mentally in those situations moving forward.”
On Sunday, Truex will face the perils of fighting through the field once again as he’ll start from the rear of the field for the Fan Shield 500. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team discovered an oil leak on Truex’s Toyota Saturday morning.
“It’s not what we hoped for, obviously,” Truex said. “It’s one of those things that you can’t change. Just try to do the best we can with it. We’ve had a rough couple of races, but the team has been doing a great job and our cars have been fast. Those are the positives.
“Hopefully we come out of here with a strong day. I wasn’t real happy with our car (Friday), but we made a lot of changes overnight and it felt much better there. We’ll see what happens.”
Truex, 39, has noticed a distinct difference in the style of racing from when he entered the Cup Series full-time in 2006. Back then, drivers had to earn respect, and that was achieved with give and take.
“It’s nothing now like it was then,” Truex said. “It’s not at all like that. This package and this racing are so different than it was back then. Everybody, these cars are bad in dirty air, they’re not good in traffic and you get back in the 20s and the 30s there, a lot of things can surprise you. Some guys just don’t understand that yet—that’s part of the learning process.
“There’s definitely less experience for sure. I think a lot of it has to do with these cars, and you have to run them so hard and you have to try not to lift and you just find yourself in bad positions a lot more often because of that. One slip trying to run wide open, you can be moving up a whole lane if there’s a guy there, it’s over. Back in the day, you were lifting, and guys weren’t three- and four-wide on restarts for the most part. It’s more difficult because there’s more traffic, and smaller mistakes are magnified, especially when you’re back there around a lot of cars.”
Truex was blocked at Vegas, then sandwiched three-wide into the wall. That contact resulted in a tire rub—and eventually a 20th-place finish.
“It was probably my fault, I should have lifted, and I didn’t expect what happened to happen,” Truex said. “I was a little caught off guard, but I should have lifted. Most other drivers I would have lifted anyway, and I probably should have done that. That was on me. Fast car, and that’s part of racing getting back there like that.”
Last week at Auto Club Speedway, Truex was in the lead by Lap 130 and could actually contend with Alex Bowman. Following problems in the pits on Lap 161, he dropped to mid-pack. Truex had worked his way up to seventh when Hamlin “pinched” him into the wall.
“We all but cut a right tire down there and barely finished the race,” Truex said. “I was frustrated about that. But we had a really good conversation about the package and what we expect from each other.
“I feel really comfortable racing against Denny. I always have. We talked some things over, and I think there are some things we can do to help each other out a little more.”
Chris Lambert, Hamlin’s spotter, wasn’t nearly as diplomatic when he described the strategy drivers must adopt to be successful at this style of racing.
“You have to be a dick,” Lambert told Claire B. Lang on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Sunday morning. “You have to race like an asshole.”
Unfortunately, being an asshole just doesn’t fit Truex’s style.
“That’s what’s so frustrating,” Truex said. “I feel like I race everybody fair and clean and I’ve been run into the wall two weeks in a row. And two other times last weekend I had to stand on the brakes off Turn 4 for two guys that were coming up no matter if I was there or not.
“At the same time, I can’t drive their cars. And if I stay in that hole, I’m going to get crashed, too, and I don’t want that to happen. It’s a tough balance of knowing when to hold your ground and knowing when to back out of there and most times it’s better to back out. But there comes a point where you have to stay in there and hope you wreck them worse than you get wrecked.”