By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
If there was a driver that improved throughout Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway, it would be Martin Truex, Jr. as he brought home a season-high sixth in the sport’s return to competition.
At the start of the race, it appeared for a period of time that it would’ve been another rough outing for the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion as he punched a hole on the right front of his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats & ATVs Toyota Camry.
It was believed the damage occurred at the start of the race when further back Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. failed to complete a lap due to crashing on the backstretch.
Truex described how not being able to practice and qualifying would bring some nerves among the 40-car grid, but felt everyone except Stenhouse minded their own business at the start of the race.
“I think everybody was just real antsy about getting out there and wanting to make a couple laps and see what they had,” said Truex. “I think everybody did a good job of keeping their heads screwed on straight and kind of taking it easy those first couple laps, obviously one guy had an issue and crashed, but aside from that it was pretty clean.
“Everybody kind of minded their business there and took it easy. Honestly, it almost felt like it was coming back to the first race after the off-season except we didn’t test and we didn’t have practice or qualifying. It was like, ‘Alright, here we go.’ It’s funny, once you get in the car and get your helmet on and all ready to go, it just comes right back to you – all the feels of the last race and all that stuff. It’s a comfortable place for somebody who’s been around the block for awhile.”
Despite sustaining damage, Truex felt that his car had good pace but needed improvements to showcase its full potential. Once the opening stage ended after Jimmie Johnson ran into the back of Chris Buescher while leading, the No. 19 team made tremendous wedge adjustments.
“It was looking pretty dark and gloomy there for the first two runs and honestly my biggest concern was not wrecking the first run because it was so far off and it was all I could do to just hang on to it and then the second run it took off a little bit better, but then it came right back around to being terrible again,” Truex on the opening runs of the 293-lap race.
“I just had to ride and wait on the track to take some rubber and things to change and towards the end of that run, we were starting to get somewhat competitive so I knew there was some light there at the end of the tunnel.”
From there, the team kept improving Truex’s car and it showed as he was one of the faster cars out on the 1.366-mile circuit.
Truex commented that he told his crew chief James Small that big changes needed to be made, which he felt Small already knew and by taking big swings, the car performance went on a much positive direction.
“Great job by him and the guys to stay calm and doing what needed to be done. We were able to make something out of it,” said Truex. “Felt like towards the end there, we had a top-three or four car and maybe if we could get out front, we might be able to hold them off.”
In the closing stages of the race, Truex was one spot of shy of catching his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin for a top-five finish, but instead had to settle for his first top-10 of the season.
Truex had to work for a sixth-place spot after the final pit stop bit the No. 19 team. Notably, on the right rear as they had a little issue which cost him spots and had to restart ninth, something he noted as being “the worst place to possibly be.” As a result, he lost more spots which attest the car was fast in order to get through several cars on a lengthy green flag run.
“(The) inside is a tough restart there. We lost a bunch of positions and then had to make them all up at the end,” said Truex. “We passed a lot of cars all day, but especially at the end. We were faster than the leader when we could get clean air at the end so that was promising. Just really happy and proud of everybody for having so much time off and being able to come back and do it and hopefully we learned a lot for Wednesday that should help us.”
After five races, Truex cracked the top-10 in the regular season standings for the first time this season as he had finishes of 20th or worse in three of those races.
Heading into Wednesday’s Toyota 500K at Darlington, Truex will start in the same spot he did for Sunday’s race in the 15th position.
Truex’s mindset into Wednesday’s race (live coverage at 7:30 pm EST on FS1) is how much better he and the rest of the grid will be in the 228-lap race.
“No question, we can get better. The question is how much better will other guys get as well,” said Truex. “That’s really where the results will come in. I definitely feel that we can get better, especially as bad as we started off and hopefully we’ll be able to make some good changes and go there and be competitive. We definitely got a lot of practice passing cars so the invert will be nothing new for us.”