Truex determined to rebound from winless season with Gibbs
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. contemplated retirement during last year’s winless season and needed until June to decide to return in 2023.
He announced his plans in his typically understated way, with a one-sentence statement: “I’m back in the 19 next year," it read.
Truex prefers to make his noise on the racetrack and did so at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum by opening his 18th full season at NASCAR's top level with a win in the exhibition Busch Light Clash. It was Truex's first victory since a Sept. 11, 2021 win at Richmond.
When he entered the USC locker room for his post-victory news conference with a gold medal around his neck, Truex was asked his mindset for this upcoming season.
“Mad," he said.
Then he clarified how determined he and his No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing are to rebound from last year, when Truex went winless for the first time in seven years. And, after advancing to the championship finale in five of seven seasons, Truex failed to even make the playoffs.
“Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year,” he said. "If you look at all the statistics, we had a decent year. We were consistent. We scored a lot of points. So many times that we felt like we were doing the right things, and probably should have won a couple races, and they got away from us.
“That was very, very frustrating. Knowing that we were doing everything we needed to do to win,” he added.
In fairness, it wasn't a dominating year for Joe Gibbs Racing as an organization. The four drivers combined for six victories, with Christopher Bell using two playoff wins to advance into the championship final four. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who has since left JGR, were both eliminated in knockout rounds.
Truex did everything but win, which was his downfall. He ran inside the top-10 in the standings through the entire regular season, only to miss a spot in the playoffs because NASCAR had a record-tying 19 different winners last season.
Truex's win was a rebound from last year's inaugural race in the Coliseum. He was one of the last to qualify for the 23-car event, was not competitive, and finished 15th.
“Honestly, we were probably the worst car here last year, literally. We were just God awful,” said Truex. “We barely made the race. Rode around the back and I spun out by myself on the last lap it was so bad."
He admitted to Saturday night nerves before the race, unable to convince himself his fast times in practice would translate into Sunday night's race.
Truex is also facing upheaval in his personal life as he made a rare public statement last week to announce he had split from his longtime partner, Sherry Pollex. The two first got together in 2005 and remained together during Pollex's ongoing eight-year battle with ovarian cancer.
"Sherry and I have made the decision to end our relationship. I will continue supporting Sherry moving forward," he said in a statement. "I would ask that you respect our privacy as there will be no further comment about this matter.”
Whether it's personal or professional, the change in Truex was noticed by his crew chief.
“He’s super motivated, and we’re all behind him," said James Small. “I think last year was a big disappointment for all of us. He knew he’s way better than that, and he’s just ready to get going. We all just want to prove everyone wrong.”
Next up for Truex is the Daytona 500, a race he's never won. He's 0-for-18 in “The Great American Race” despite starting on the pole in 2011. In 2016, Truex lost a photo finish to now teammate Hamlin by .010 seconds.
He's ready to end the drought in the Feb. 19 season-opener.
“I'm just wanting to go out and show them what we can do," Truex said. "We’ve been very fired up this off-season, working very hard, all of us.”
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