By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
PHOENIX – “Usually a lot of times JGR might be the favorite going into a championship race. I think we’re definitely the underdogs,” said Joe Gibbs Racing Team Executive Wally Brown said on Monday.
“We have to beat the guy, Kyle Larson, that has won so many races, been so dominant this year. Then you have Chase (Elliott), the reigning champion at this track. We’re definitely the underdog.”
Don’t consider Martin Truex, Jr. as a dark horse nor an underdog for Sunday’s championship deciding race at Phoenix Raceway. It’s not how the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion rolls. Even if such viewpoint comes from the team he’s driven for since 2019.
During Thursday’s Championship 4 Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center, Truex made his case about being a dark horse.
“I don’t see how we’re the dark horse by any means. I feel great about our opportunity. Winning here in the spring and the 750 (horsepower) tracks is where we’ve been strong this year. So here we are. This is our kind of race track, but we’ll see.”
Who’s to blame the confident Truex as he’s the defending track winner. Truex led 46 laps in March’s Instacart 500 en route to his first of four wins this season.
The biggest catch is that it’ll be a different car this Sunday, anticipating the best machine was saved for last.
“That’s the best car I ever had at Phoenix,” Truex said of the car he raced last spring. “I’ve been coming here since 2004 and the car felt good. It did a lot of really good things. If we can make that happen again and even have more speed, we’re going to be tough to handle.”
Part of the chatter about the No. 19 team being viewed as such is a result of Hendrick Motorsports’ dominance, including Larson, who leads the series with nine wins. Elliott won last season’s finale to capture his first Cup title.
However, Truex’s aforementioned confidence about the 750 rules package is a result of JGR outperforming HMS. It’s another reason why he doesn’t agree with the notion of being a dark horse.
“Hendrick have been fast with great drivers. But it’s the final four, so it’s an equal opportunity here. Phoenix has been a good track. 750 tracks have been our best. Not just with JGR, but the No. 19 team especially. All of our wins have come with this package. I enjoy the 750 stuff, so I’m fired up and excited about this weekend. I think we can get it done.”
Should he sweep Phoenix and lock up his second title, Truex hasn’t really put thought into what it’ll mean to his legacy in the sport. In his eyes, it won’t come into fruition until the contest has unfolded. There are other things that’ll come into play this weekend compared to March.
When Truex won, there was no practice and qualifying. No resin was applied to the mile-long circuit as they used PJ1.
“It seems like so far where we’ve used the resin has not been much different than the PJ1. It’s a little bit less treacherous and a little bit less sensitive to temperature,” Truex comparing the two compounds.
“With the PJ1, it seem like we always start the race and felt super slippery for a couple of laps. Then it’ll come in and then it’ll get super griped up. It changed a lot throughout the day.
“The resin stays a little bit more consistent and it doesn’t wear off as bad. More consistent is a good thing.”
Nevertheless, having extra track time and adapting to a different track compound will do wonders.
“I honestly think it’ll be a more fair competition for four guys having practice. Lay it all on the line and see who does the best job,” Truex explained. “(Having track time) has always been our strong point.
“I don’t know many races we’ve won where we unloaded in practice and we were absolutely god awful. Like terrible and I’m like, ‘Guys! We’re way off. Let’s get to work.'”
“We end up winning the race and that happened a lot of times. Even after Saturday practice, we wholesale the thing and go out and win. I have a lot of confidence on my team when it comes down to that.
“Usually, if we get good laps in practice and get a good feel to the car and get that information, we can start working on it and make stuff happen.”
Due to going the extra mile and putting in the work, Truex says he’s lucky to be a part of a motivated race team. It’s been instrumental to him making it to the Championship 4 for the fifth time.
Live coverage of the championship race commences at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC.