By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
It was the last question reporters asked Martin Truex Jr. on Friday before opening practice at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and it was the biggest smile they received.
How important was it for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion to score his first win of the season – and first since joining Joe Gibbs Racing team – two weeks ago at Richmond, Va.?
“It definitely felt good’’ Truex said, adding with a grin. “It was nice to go into an off-weekend with a win under your belt and be a winner for two weeks instead of one.
“But you know, I think just getting that first one in the season out of the way, it always seems to be the toughest one and especially this year being on the new team and all that comes with it. It was definitely a big boost for our team and for all of us. So good confidence builder and definitely a good time to win and hopeful that we can continue to put ourselves in position.’’
Richmond also marked Truex’s first career short track win – a milestone he’d like to compliment with his first superspeedway victory in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
He currently sits sixth in the championship standings with six top-10 and three top-five finishes through the opening nine races. He’s led 196 laps in three races – but 186 came in his convincing showing last week at Richmond.
As with several of his fellow drivers, Truex insisted he arrived at Talladega without specific expectations. That is a common approach for drivers because of the nature of restrictor plate racing, but it is especially true as the series debuts a new technical package this weekend on the wide, high banks.
Ford drivers have won the past seven consecutive races at Talladega. And Truex acknowledged the style of racing at the big tracks is often dictated by drafting partners. This weekend, may not be much different.
Or it may be very different. That’s the nature of this track.
“It definitely could change this weekend,’’ Truex said. “You know, I think there’s already a lot of talk about tandem possibly being able to happen and if it does and it fits the way to go, then you know, teamwork for certainly kind of goes through a whole other level where have to kind of commit to just one guy.
“As far as Toyota kind of starting the teamwork deal back at Daytona a couple of years ago, I think how it’s changed is that everybody’s caught on it manufacturer wise. And for us at Toyota, there’s a lot less Toyotas than anything else. So it’s changes a lot of for us. I would say more than anyone.
“Strength in numbers I think has been, you know kind of against us. But in general the manufacturer really worked hard at getting their teams all together and try and do the best job they can and get their manufacturer to victory lane.’’
This year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin was the last Toyota driver to celebrate in Talladega victory lane – hoisting the 2014 trophy. Counting retired Chevy driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win in 2015 – Ford’s have won eight of the past nine races.
Talladega has been a rare thorn in Truex’s side specifically. In 28 career Cup races at the big track, Truex has 13 DNFs (Did Not Finish) – the most among the current top-ranked 16 drivers. For perspective, Kyle Busch has 27 starts and only six DNFs.
Truex spoke with the media only minutes before jumping in his No. 19 JGR Toyota Camry opening practice – something he believes will set the tone for the weekend and the race specifically.
“I think we’ll get a good idea, but race conditions are always different,’’ Truex said. “The race, the win is on the line – a lot of changes, you know the energy gets going and the guys are willing to take a lot more risk. I think you’ll get a good idea of it today (in two practice sessions). But you know Sunday has opportunities to be a little bit different.’’