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Sonoma Win Takes Waltrip Back To ‘A Special Day’

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 24 2013

Martin Truex Jr.'s victory at Sonoma was sweet for him and the owner of his team – Michael Waltrip. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Martin Truex Jr. didn’t break the longest non-winning streak among active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers Sunday with his victory at Sonoma Raceway. That dubious record still belongs to 2000 Cup champion Bobby Labonte at 340 consecutive races…and counting.

There was a time when Truex’s team co-owner, Michael Waltrip, was burdened by that record and the one-liners that accompanied it at 428 consecutive races. Waltrip snapped that streak on Feb. 18, 2001, when he won the season-opening Daytona 500 in his debut for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Tragically, the celebration quickly was muted by the news that seven-time Cup champion Earnhardt – who confounded the critics by hiring Waltrip – had died of injuries suffered in a last-lap crash in Turn 4.

The flashbacks were immediate and emotional for Waltrip after Truex ended a 218-race winless drought in the 25th annual Toyota/Save Mart 350 on the 1.99-mile road-course in California’s wine country.

“Well, I will never forget – and this was a special moment that happened (Sunday) – when I leaned in the car to congratulate Martin, he had just come onto pit road, and I leaned in and there were tears in his eyes and you could feel the elation and the joy and the relief,” Waltrip said. “And as I did that, it took me straight back to 2001 when I finally pulled into Victory Lane and was able to briefly celebrate what was the greatest racing day of my career. I saw all that same emotion and the same feeling in Martin.

“I’m glad I got to experience that, and it reminded me of a special day. And it made me really thankful that he was…you’re looking at winners that are totally thankful that we’re here. Martin has got a beer and I’ve got a goblet.”

Ironically, Truex’s first Cup win – on June 4, 2007 on the 1-mile Dover International Speedway – was scored while driving a Chevrolet for team-owner Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s widow, at DEI. Sunday’s win was Truex’s first for Michael Waltrip Racing, which is co-owned by Waltrip and Robert Kauffman, as well as his first while driving the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota Camry. The win was the second straight for MWR at Sonoma, where teammate Clint Bowyer posted his first road-course victory last summer.

“I was real confident that Martin would run well today,” said Waltrip, 50, a four-time Cup winner who founded his team in 2002. “I’ve just seen him run on this track, and he understands how to get around here as good as anyone. So I’ve been confident all week coming here about how we’d perform.

“I just checked my phone; I have 68 messages from people, and the last one was from one of our employees back in North Carolina, Bobby Kennedy (executive vice president of race operations). He’s been with me since 2000 building cars, and he said I might be late (on Monday). I don’t think I can articulate how important it is for us to get NAPA to Victory Lane. You know, they’ve been with me since 2001 when I drove for Dale, and we haven’t had them to Victory Lane since 2003. You talk about Martin’s breaking a losing streak; NAPA broke one bigger than that.

“Michael Waltrip Racing exists because of some key cornerstone partners. One is NAPA; one is Aaron’s; obviously Toyota is the reason why I have a team. And then to have 5-hour Energy join us and let us bring on Clint, that made our team better. It’s just really special to get a win for Martin and for NAPA.

“We knew – I believe in this man (Truex). He can drive a car as good as anybody on the track. Chad (Johnston, crew chief) is new to the crew chiefing game. He joined as an engineer and he’s worked his way up and he called the perfect race, and he’s been on his game all year long. It’s really fun to see these two mature and I think they can do a lot of special things over the next few years.”

The NACAR Nationwide Series champion in 2004-05 – his only fulltime seasons in that series – Truex certainly knows how to win. But six second-place Cup finishes since that breakthrough victory in ’07 only added to the frustration that ended Sunday.

“I can’t even put it into words,” said Truex, a second-generation stock car driver who will turn 33 on Saturday. “It’s going to be a wild-ass week, I can tell you that much.” Martin’s father formerly competed in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East.

“I’ve got so many people to thank that have stuck with me,” Truex said. “Michael and Rob; Chad has come so far as a crew chief, I can’t even tell you how proud I am of him. The team – they’re just phenomenal. We’ve had cars really fast all year long. We’ve had some tough luck, but that’s part of racing. Today was just our day. We had a lot of days where it wasn’t our day. Today, it was just our time. The car was flawless. Just tried to forget about what was behind me and focus on winning.”

Truex led three times for a race-high 51 laps (of 110) en route to victory by a comfortable 8.133-seconds over four-time series champion Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports.

“It’s a fine line here between running hard enough and too hard and not hard enough,” said Truex, who finished 11th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings in 2007 and 2012 and is 10th after 16 races. “I wanted to run hard enough that I could keep at least matching the guys behind me on lap time or pulling away. I was trying to be smart, trying to be smooth and keep something in case we had a caution. The only thing I could think of for the last 15 laps was, ‘Please, no caution, please no caution’ and just try to focus on hitting my marks and not screwing up.

“We learned a lot from Clint here last year, obviously, with what he did and were able to use some of it. He’s an awesome freakin’ teammate, him and Mark (Martin) and Brian (Vickers). We have such a great race team right now. I’m just so glad this thing is out of the way because we’ve been so close and I feel like now we’ve gotten this one out of the way we can do it a whole bunch more.”

The win also was the first in Cup for Johnston, who was paired with Truex heading into the 18th race of the 2011 season at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway. On cue, that is the site of next Saturday’s night Cup race.

“It’s an awesome feeling to get all the guys that work on this NAPA Toyota into Victory Lane,” said Johnston, 33, who joined MWR in 2010. “There’s not a better bunch of guys in the garage. It’s nice to get them, get NAPA, get Martin back in Victory Lane; it’s just a good day.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 24 2013
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