DOVER, Del. – Martin Truex Jr. used to called Dover simply his hometown track. He likes the new title much better: Dover International Speedway, site of his first Nextel Cup victory.
Truex was back at the track of his greatest Cup achievement on Friday, no longer perceived as a Nextel Cup driver who can’t win a race or even as the other junior at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Truex returned firmly in place as the future of DEI.
Not only that, Truex is back as a legitimate contender to win the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a different feeling,” Truex said on Friday. “This is the only time I’ve been in this position in the Cup Series so it feels good and it’s cool.
“We’re just doing our normal deal.”
The normal deal has worked out just fine so far for the Mayetta, N.J., native who was largely overshadowed for most of his first Cup season and the early half of this one by his more famous teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While fans and the racing community focused mostly on Earnhardt Jr.’s free-agency and where NASCAR’s most popular driver would end up next season, Truex was quietly racing his way up the points standings. He hovered in the 20s early in the season and worked his way into the high teens heading into Dover in June.
Then Truex put Nextel Cup on notice that he was contender.
Driving on the track where he won twice before in the Busch Series, Truex led 216 of the 400 laps on the Monster Mile and won his first career race in 58 starts. He made the trip to Victory Lane that Earnhardt Jr., with all his talent and popularity, hasn’t reached in 16 months.
“We knew that was one thing we could cross off our list of accomplishments and goals, and one of our goals was to be in the Chase, so that didn’t change,” Truex said. “Winning or not winning didn’t change our strategy.”
After the victory, Truex said qualifying for the Chase was “definitely not out of the question.” Now winning the whole thing in only his second season is a real possibility.
“We felt like we could be in the Chase before the year started and that never changed no matter what the situation,” he said.
Truex followed his win with a second- and a third-place finish in the next two races. He had three more top-fives, including last week’s fifth-place finish at New Hampshire.
The result in the No. 1 Chevrolet bumped Truex up a spot in the points standings to sixth place, 40 points behind leader and Sunday’s polesitter Jimmie Johnson. Another win at Dover and Truex can really start thinking about making a hard push down the stretch for a championship.
While former champions like Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have gained most of the attention and are pegged as the title favorites, Truex is comfortable running out of the spotlight. After all, with Earnhardt as a teammate, he’s certainly used to being No. 2.
“They have all the statistics and that’s what they go by,” he said. “We’re not even on that sheet yet. It doesn’t really matter. I feel good about my team and what we’ve been able to accomplish so far.”
With or without a title, Truex knows the pressure will only rise next season now that Earnhardt Jr. has defected to Hendrick Motorsports. The No. 1 will be Truex’s car number and his spot on the team. So far, that’s only meant a few more interviews. Next year, it means becoming the face of an organization long associated with Junior and his late father.
Earnhardt Jr. said he slightly more at ease about his decision to leave because of Truex’s emergence.
“I feel confident in Martin’s ability to be the leader of the company in the future,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He can help that company become what it wants to become. So that makes me feel better that he’s running well and that he’s competitive. I know the attitude that Martin has and the personality that Martin has and that makes me feel better.”
Truex, who will make a rare appearance in the Busch Series race on Saturday, said all the off-track commitments won’t change what he does once he’s on the garage. And if there’s a feeling that he should be happy just to be in the Chase in only his second season and has nothing to lose, well, he’s not buying it.
“I’ve got stuff to lose,” he said. “I want to win.”