DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After visiting victory lane 24 times in NASCAR Cup Series competition during the previous four seasons, Martin Truex Jr. basked in confetti only once last season.
Despite the apparent drop-off, in reality the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team wasn’t that far off.
If it wasn’t for a loose wheel in the Round of 8 cutoff at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, when Truex was second when he needed to pit with 26 laps to go, he likely would have advanced to his fourth straight Championship 4 appearance. Ultimately, that wasn’t the case, and now Truex and company are focused on bridging the execution gap to regain Championship 4 form.
“Last year did not go the way we wanted,” Truex said Friday during Daytona 500 media availability. “We had a lot of close calls and had some races we probably should have won and things didn’t go the way we needed to, or we screwed them up. That always makes you angry and makes you want to go back and redo it or retry it. I think we are better prepared this year, for sure, as a unit.”
“We have to get our cars better,” he added. “We have to make better decisions. I have to drive better, make less mistakes and that’s really what it boils down to. We are looking forward to that challenge.”
It is hard to sustain a pace of six wins per year and be in the Championship 4 yet again, but that’s the expectation Truex has set since 2016. The major wrinkle, though, is that Cole Pearn, the crew chief who steered Truex to his lone Cup Series championship in 2017, is no longer with the team.
James Small inherited pit-box duties after Pearn left NASCAR racing at the end of 2019. He and Truex took their lumps last year, but Pearn and Truex went through similar growing pains to reach peak production.
Truex and Pearn won just once in their first year together in 2015. The year after, they rattled off four wins. In 2017, they surged to eight victories and a championship. Eleven more wins and a pair of Championship 4 appearances followed in 2018 and ’19, respectively.
In 2020, championship speed and opportunities were there. Truex finished with 14 top-five finishes, 23 top-10 results and led 950 laps, which all ranked top five in the series.
“I’m optimistic that we will have a better season,” Truex said. “I think last year that we had a lot of near misses, a lot of tough breaks, a lot of great race cars along the way. Obviously, [there were] some races [where] we were off, and we didn’t do the job we should have or needed to. I think last year there were a lot of unique challenges without having practice and that’s probably one of the biggest things that hurt us, especially the first half of the year, when we came back from the COVID shutdown.”
Truex knows that performing during the stretch run of the playoffs is important.
“It’s difficult to have a great season and not get it done,” Truex said. “At the end of the day, this is the challenge we are faced with and you’ve got to make the best of it. At the end of the day, the best team wins, no matter how they get there.”
Next Sunday marks Truex’s 17th attempt to win the Daytona 500, which hasn’t gone his way in recent years. He’s crashed out of the last two events and in 2018 a mid-race incident put him multiple laps down.
Evading the carnage and winning wouldn’t just be his first Daytona 500 victory, but his first superspeedway win, too.
“It would be huge,” Truex said. “We’ve been trying for a long time. It’s a tough race to win. We’ve been really close. I think for us, trying how to be better at speedway racing is something in general that we’ve worked on over the last handful of years.
“The biggest thing is trying to figure out a way to get to the end of the race and that’s the biggest thing,” he added. “I feel like every time we make it to the end of one of these speedway races, we’re in the hunt and we have a chance.”