AVONDALE, Ariz.—Despite winning at Phoenix Raceway in the spring, Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t consider himself the favorite entering Sunday’s season finale.
Despite winning four races with the 750-horsepower package, Truex doesn’t consider himself to be a lock.
And despite being one of just two drivers eligible for the title who have hoisted the NASCAR Cup before, the 2017 champion doesn’t consider himself the chosen one.
Given the strength of the Championship 4—Truex, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and defending champion Chase Elliott—the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota doesn’t believe there’s a favorite among the contenders. Perhaps it’s just Truex’s humility shining through.
“It is fun to be a part of this, though it's easy to lose sight of that," said Truex, who qualified 12th for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race.
Truex has been the favorite before. When he won the 2017 title, Truex had seven victories entering Homestead, then won the season finale. Two years later, he also had seven wins going to the final four but finished second to teammate Kyle Busch, who was crowned the champ.
Truex believes the champion will absolutely have to win the race. In March, the No. 19 team won the race off of pit road with 25 laps remaining and held the point to the win. Truex called that car the best he had ever had at Phoenix in his career.
Perhaps that’s why Truex doesn’t show an ounce of concern entering the title bout. On Thursday, he was a bit giddy with anticipation for the weekend.
“It's just confidence at the end of the day,” Truex said. “It's understanding we've been in this Final Four—I think it's our fifth time now. Not only me, but James and some guys on our team, you understand the big picture and how to control the moment and not let it overtake your emotions and make decisions just out of—because you're going crazy and you don’t—the moment is too big for you I guess is what I'm trying to say.
“We know how to do that and keep under control and understand the situation and make good decisions. I think at the end of the day that's important, and having that one (tittle) under your belt certainly gives you confidence.”
With 17 victories between them, the four candidates have won nearly half of the 35 races run in 2021. Truex’s four victories were earned at tracks using the 750-horsepower package. The driver says the high-horsepower, low-downforce cars suit his style. But Sunday’s race for the championship will come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
“Every race you've always got to not beat yourself,” Truex said. “With as good as the competition is you can't make mistakes. That's always a big part of it. Phoenix will be no different.
“I always tell people, you need a million things to go right to win a race. Just one race, a million things. One of those goes wrong, you're probably not going to win or there's a good chance you won't win. We deal with that on a regular basis.”
The 41-year-old veteran stays grounded through his philanthropic endeavors channeled through the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation. Truex's generosity off the track often bleeds over to his driving style, much to the chagrin of his crew chief James Small. He isn’t a driver who ascribes to the maxim "rubbing is racing."
That's why Small was quick to remind Truex he has no friends on the race track prior to the make-or-break race at Martinsville last Sunday.
“I think James is trying to remind me, in case I need to do something stupid,” Truex said with a laugh. “Which I didn’t. I try not to. I don’t even know if I try not to--I don’t. I guess I’m programmed that way. I always have been since I started racing. My dad taught me that—how to respect my equipment. I was the one working on it. That’s how it has always been.”
Truex’s ability to respect his equipment and the competitors around him has contributed to his fifth appearance in the Championship 4. Following the golden rule of racing—race others the way you want to be raced—has kept him off his peers’ hit list.
When asked about Hamlin’s rant of thriving in chaos, Truex said he wanted none of it.
“I guess I try to focus on what really matters, and luckily haven't been in any confrontations here lately,” Truex said. “It's always good to not have enemies when it comes to a race like this. Not that they'll come into play. I don't see anybody doing anything out of control this weekend.
“Everybody understands that it's the championship race, it's the Final Four, and I don't think anyone will do anything silly…less enemies makes it a little bit easier if you get back in traffic or something that guys will show you a little bit more respect, I would say.”
In his 16th full season in the Cup Series, Truex cherishes every chance he has to race for the title. He remembers a time in his career when the cars weren’t capable of carrying him into the postseason, let alone race for a championship.
“You don't get to do this every year,” Truex said. “There's no guarantee that anybody is ever going to win a championship, let alone have the opportunity. They definitely mean more. They hurt more when they're in this situation, when it’s—last year we didn't get to come back and try to fix what we did in 2019 with the tire issue.
“I think you just relish the opportunity. You really understand what the opportunity is about, and it's really a game of the odds, I think. The more times you're in this, the better chance you have of winning one of them. For us, the last two we've been in we've finished second and probably had the best car. Maybe the odds are in our favor here to get our second one. Let's hope.”