Martin Truex Jr. has experienced his share of frustration this season. He’d lost races in the most peculiar fashions, ranging from defeat in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history, to the failure of a fluke part few had heard of, to the inconsistent enforcement of an oft-ignored penalty.
Given the assortment of happenstances that have combined to derail many potential Truex victories, the natural inclination when he took the lead with 16 laps remaining in Sunday’s Southern 500 was to assume something would occur to keep him out of Darlington Raceway’s victory lane. Maybe the track would open and swallow the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing car whole. Perhaps Truex would strike Bigfoot.
These may seem like preposterous notions, except they really aren’t. That’s how things have unfolded for the driver who’s led the third-most laps, yet had just a single victory and three top-five finishes before Sunday.
But there were no mishaps. No strategic errors. No rotten luck. Truex executed flawlessly and was rewarded with his second win of the year. Coupled with his victory at the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Truex now owns claim to two of NASCAR’s major races in 2016.
“We never lost confidence,” Truex said. “We’ve been one of the fastest, if not the fastest car, all summer long and everywhere we’ve been and we’ve had a lot of rotten luck, but it was worth having all that luck if that’s what it takes to get a Southern 500 trophy.”
While finishing strong every week has been an issue at times, Truex’s ability to regularly run up front, lead laps and challenge for wins makes him someone to watch when NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in two weeks.
Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn are an especially potent combination on mile-and-a-half venues, which comprise half the 10-race playoffs.
This season, Truex led the most laps and should have won at Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, and did win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a record-breaking performance in which he led 588 of 600 miles. Those three tracks all host Chase events, as does Homestead-Miami Speedway where the championship will be decided between four drivers on Nov. 20.
Among the four title contenders a year ago, Truex holds a strong chance of repeating that deep playoff run. Although defending series champion Kyle Busch and former Sprint Cup titlists Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth have proven equally formidable and are bigger names, Truex is worthy of being called a favorite.
“I think that based on the team we have and the way we've been running, we could honestly be sitting here with seven, eight, nine wins if things had gone a little different here and there,” Truex said. “That being said, we've got two, and I really feel like we've got a legitimate shot at this championship.”
Of course, Chase success is about more than outright speed. It’s also dependent upon executing and a resolve to recover when mistakes or misfortune inevitably transpire. But if there is a characteristic Truex and FRR have demonstrated in this roller coaster season, it’s the ability to bounce back.
“It's been a good season, but it definitely could be a great season, and until Homestead is done and gone, we won't know,” Truex said. “I’m just looking forward to that opportunity to work with this team and trying to go after our first championship.”