By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
This is a different Martin Truex Jr., at least from the perspective of fourth year crew chief James Small, who says last season changed the 2017 Cup Series champion.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Small said. “And Martin is a different person right now, and he’s super motivated, and we’re all behind him.”
Truex went winless last season and missed the Cup Series Playoffs for the first time since 2014, but how exactly did it change him.
“Mad,” Truex said after winning the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Sunday night.
It made him mad.
“Just determined,” Truex said. “Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year. If you look at all the statistics, we had a decent year. We were consistent. We scored a lot of points. We struggled on short tracks and road courses, which ultimately is what kept us out of the playoffs.
“Just so many times that we felt like we were doing the right things and probably should have won a couple races, and they got away from us. That was very, very frustrating. Knowing that we were doing everything we needed to do to win. That sucked.”
The Clash is a preseason exhibition race, so Truex technically still hasn’t won since September 11, 2021 and that has driven him through the entire off-season. It’s driven Small and everyone associated with the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 team — many whom have served together since their Furniture Row Racing No. 78 days.
Their frustrations began at the Clash last year and rarely subsided throughout the summer. That’s the one way of describing the 2022 season, but Small has another very Australian way of putting it.
“We were a bag of dicks,” Small said. “To come back and turn it around like that, that gives us motivation for all the tracks we go to.”
Truex led the 10th most number of laps. They were 10th in top-10s. Average finish? Ninth.
They were a top-10 team, but due in part to misfortune, self-inflicted wounds and their lack of performance on short tracks and road courses, they were locked out of Victory Lane and the Round of 16.
It was potentially his last season, Truex considering retirement before announcing in July that he would be back in 2023, and now having even more reasons to want it to be a good one.
“We’ve been very fired up this off-season, working very hard, all of us,” Truex said. “It’s just nice when it all works out and you can come to the track and things go the way you hope they will.”
With that said, Truex also doesn’t think winning the Clash this year means anything in the grand scheme of things because it’s a one-of-a-kind layout and race format that doesn’t portend much for the regular season.
At the same time, celebrating a win of any kind is a reminder of where they want to go this spring, summer and autumn.
“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” Truex said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.
“You always get those questions, right, like ‘are we fooling ourselves’ or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.
“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, ‘okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on,’ and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”
Small also says there’s a ‘prove it’ element to their swagger this year.
“I think last year was a big disappointment for all of us,” he said. “He knew he’s way better than that, and he’s just ready to get going. We all just want to prove everyone wrong.”
The Clash doesn’t count, but it is one check off the list.
“We’d like to win them all,” said Truex. “We’re 1-for-1 right now, so that’s a good way to start. Daytona 500 is a huge race. It’s the biggest race of the year for us and going there with momentum is great. Been really close there before; it would be an awesome one to check off the list.”