Loyalty And Patience Have Paid Off For Truex Jr.
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
LEAWOOD, Kan. – Ty Norris’s tone shifted noticeably toward serious when the conversation shifted toward Sprint Cup driver Martin Truex Jr.’s victory total since joining Michael Waltrip Racing for the 2010 season.
Norris, MWR’s general manager, made it clear that it was not zero victories that have defined Truex’s time with the team. It’s been loyalty. Loyalty through tough times that is now paying off for the team and for Truex himself.
“Listen,” Norris said during a telephone conversation on Thursday, ”a lot of people say that Martin has not won in three years. Well I know that Martin has sacrificed years of his career at a critical time in his career. He came to Michael Waltrip Racing when we were just OK. He sacrificed two years of his career to get this team right.
“And now, he doesn’t feel liked a contracted race car driver at a team. It’s an organization that he helped grow and build. He truly feels like this is a company that he helped build.”
And build into a power.
This weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship will begin its 10-race run. It will do so with Michael Waltrip Racing, for the first time, shaping the show as both Truex and teammate Clint Bowyer solidly made the field.
Bowyer made it into the field with a two victories and a fair amount of flash. He will start the playoffs
seeded sixth; six points behind leader Denny Hamlin. He did all that in his first year with MWR.
Truex will start the 12-driver Chase as the No. 10 seed. No, he has not won this year. And flash? Not in the 32-year-old driver’s game. Truex, fittingly, got in the Chase with quiet consistency.
And, when asked – during a visit to the Sprint corporate campus that is located down the road from Chase venue Kansas Speedway – on Tuesday, about a game plan for this weekend and beyond, Truex responded sans flash. “It’s easy to lose the Chase in just one race but you can’t win it in just one race.”
Pressed a bit about wins – there has been only one since coming into the Cup series full time in 2006 – he said, “I feel our team is right there. A little bit of luck is going to turn that around.”
While Truex’s season and time with MWR has not been marked by great luck, his racing life has.
Truex was leaning backward against a stone column in the bright, glass-roofed Winter Garden solarium at Sprint Tuesday when he was asked if he remembers the beginning of the beginning of his NASCAR career .
“Like it was yesterday,” the native of Mayetta, N.J. said.
It began after several years of knocking around in Modifieds and lesser stock-car series in the Northwest when in 2001, he got into a Nationwide Series (then, the Busch Series) car put together by his father.
That year and the next, Truex and his father scrambled their way into four NNS races in a No. 58 Chevrolet which carried the names of sponsors like Sea Watch International and Clam Products.
People were watching however and not just sea food lovers. Important people were watching. People with offices at Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s “Garagemahal” race shop.
Chief among those people was Norris, then executive vice president of motorsports at DEI.
The situation was this, Norris remembers: “Dale Junior and Teresa (the wife of late NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr., who had taken over the company) were starting to have some issues. A thought to pull them together was to put a Busch Series team together.”
Out of that, Chance2 Motorsports was born. The problem was, officials at Budweiser, who was sponsoring
Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Cup at the time, didn’t want their star driving in a series sponsored by Busch beer which, yes, was also owned by Budweiser but was also a friendly competitor. Junior, it was decided, could only drive the car a handful of times.
Norris came up with a list of four candidates to fill out the Chance2 schedule. Those drivers were Sam Hornish Jr. (who was an IndyCar star at the time), Kyle Busch (who was 17 years old at the time), Paul Wolfe (who is currently Brad Keselowski’s crew chief at Penske Racing) and Truex, whose name was put into the hat by head engine-builder Richie Gilmore.
When Norris first headed out to a track to talk to Truex, he didn’t even know what Truex looked like. “I went up to a crew member and asked which person was Martin Truex. The guy pointed to this older, kind of graying gentleman and I was, like, OK, wow. Thought he was supposed to be a younger guy.”
It was Martin Truex Sr. who got the point.
Finally with the correct Truex, Norris was impressed. He introduced him to Dale Jr., who said that Truex had the right criteria: “Junior said he was cool, a guy he could hang out with. The call was sort of his (Junior’s).”
The offer was made, and, Norris said, Truex “could not say yes fast enough.”
Truex made three starts for Chance2 in the no 81 car in 2003. At the second Charlotte Motor Speedway weekend that year, he moved into the No. 8 DEI car in NNS. He finished 17th that weekend. But, he was back in the car the final two races of the season – at Rockingham and Homestead – and placed second both times.
“That winter,” Truex said, “things changed. We knew we could do it at that point. The mindset changed.”
Truex had become a real gosh-darn NASCAR driver. The 2004 season started with just enough
sponsorship to run a partial schedule. But after winning the pole at Daytona and then finishing second the next week at Rockingham and then winning at nasty old Bristol in Week 5, sponsors began turning up.
He raced the full season, won six times and won the series championship. The following year, Truex again won six races and again won the championship.
“We had race Busch North, a couple of Nationwide races here and there. We (went from) just trying to do what we could, to running for a championship for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated,” Truex said. “So, you can imagine what it was like for me. One week, I was at my dad’s race shop working ’til midnight, 2 in the morning to get cars ready. The next thing I know, people are building cars for me and I’m driving the best cars in the garage.”
In 2006, Truex was promoted to Sprint Cup full-time by DEI. But by that time, the team was beginning to sputter. Dale Jr., who had won 16races the previous six years, won just once that year. Truex, too, found the going tough. He went winless and finished 19th in points.
In 2007, Truex bounced back, won a race (Dover in the spring) and made the Chase. But the next two years, tough times returned. Earnhardt Jr. left after the 2007 season to move to Hendrick Motorsports.
Prior to the 2009 season, DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing and Truex suddenly found himself in uncomfortable surroundings.
“I didn’t feel like I was their guy,” he said.
Norris, who had left DEI earlier and moved to MWR in 2005, said that during the 2009 season, he approached Truex on the starting grid at Pocono’s fall race. And, “I planted the seed,” Norris said.
“He didn’t see the merger coming. That opened up our opportunity to strike.”
In January of 2010, Norris went to Truex’s father, wrote down an offer, “and he put it in his jacket pocket
and said he would be in touch.”
Truex started the Daytona 500 that year in the No. 56 NAPA blue-and-yellow Toyota Camry of Michael Waltrip Racing.
Despite the fact that MWR had been through three seasons of tough times since going to Cup full time in 2007, Truex signed. Signed because he saw garages full of potential.
“When I came there in ‘10, my brother (Ryan) was racing an East car for them, so I got to see how their stuff was, what they were doing,” Truex said. “And they had flashes of brilliance. (David) Reutimann had won the 600 and their cars were running really good at the end of 2009. So, I felt really good going in.”
Truex finished 2010 22nd in points, and 2011 18th in points. And there was that highly visible zero in the win column.
But the people who have pointed out to Norris that Truex has not won at MWR are only technically correct, Truex says.
“We started out running well,” he said. “The first two years I was there, we ran well. It’s wasn’t a disaster by any means. It was a lot of ups and downs.”
Enough ups that the team and NAPA stuck together, with both extending their deals earlier this year. And then, in 2012, the ups began to outnumber the downs by a wide margin.
To the point where there is no doubt they belong in the Chase. Truex and his Michael Waltrip Racing crew have been among the most consistent performers this season. They started the season off with a 12th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and did not slip back outside of the top 10 in points until the Chase seedings were determined. Six times, Truex finished in top five in the first 26 races. Fourteen times he finished in the top 10.
Truex finished on the lead lap in 22 of the 26 races.
Following last weekend’s final non-Chase race at Richmond, Waltrip gushed about Truex’s roll in elevating MWR to the top. Waltrip, who co-owns the team with Rob Kauffman, repeatedly thanked Truex for staying with the team during the tough times and being the organization’s bed rock.
Waltrip said, “In racing, tonight is really special because somebody famous and smarter than me made a quote that says those that have invested the most appreciate success the most.”
As Norris quickly and seriously pointed out on Thursday, Truex invested the best years of his career in MWR and beginning this weekend, he has a legitimate chance to reap the rewards of that investment.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.comNo Comment