Entering the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Martin Truex Jr. was optimistic.
Truex knew if the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team could advance through the first round — which features two of his best tracks on the tour, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway — the current Contender Round could pave the road to the Eliminator Eight bracket.
The Challenger Round wasn’t as easy as he expected. But with an average finish 10.6, Truex transferred to the second round, where he now faced Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
A slow start to the weekend
Then Charlotte threw the Furniture Row team a curveball.
Truex was 16th in first practice and qualified 15th. He was third on the speed chart in second practice — but that was after his first lap, and he never picked up speed. In Happy Hour, the No. 78 Chevy tested a long run but was just 22nd best in consecutive 10-lap average--hardly an encouraging sign for a driver who had led a race-high 131 laps in the Coke 600 at Charlotte in May.
“We ran so good here in the first race this year, and then after practice I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we're struggling.’” Truex said. “This was honestly the worst weekend we've had all season long as far as how I felt about the race car.”
Though we got off to a good start, we can't get ahead of ourselves. However, I am really excited about going to Kansas next week.
Martin Truex Jr.
The crew’s phones lit up after practice on Friday, trying to overcome a lack of speed. As rain beat down on the track, threatening and finally postponing the race on Saturday, crew chief Cole Pearn was still uncertain of the team’s progress.
By Sunday, Truex was back in the game.
“Our guys stepped it up and gave me a competitive race car,” said Truex, who finished third. “Cole and everyone on the pit box called a perfect race and made the right adjustments. And our pit crew came through once again.
"It was just hard work and a never-give-up attitude. From the time practice was over on Friday until this morning we were texting about the setup and what we were going to do and what we had to do.
“I'm just proud of our guys for what they did. It was a true team effort and a testament to this team and their fight.”
Truex’s eighth top-five finish of 2015 set a career-best and tied his personal record of 19 top 10s in a season.
A proven record
Truex’s worst finish at Contender Round tracks this spring was ninth at Kansas.
Before the track was repaved between races in 2012, Truex ran a career-high second. When the tour returned on the new asphalt in the fall he matched that result. Since the repave, Truex has an average finish of 9.8.
Following a Goodyear tire test at the 1.5-mile track last month, the team addressed some issues and his confidence is at an all-time high for his return this weekend.
“Though we got off to a good start, we can't get ahead of ourselves," Truex said. “However, I am really excited about going to Kansas next week--that has been one of our best tracks.
“Then there's Talladega, which appears to be on everybody's mind. A lot of things can happen there beyond your control. But right now, our focus is on Kansas and trying to come away with a win there."
If there’s a weakness in Truex’s arsenal, it’s that neither he nor his team participated in the latest format of the Chase last year. For Furniture Row, it’s just the organization’s second Chase berth since expanding to a full-time schedule in 2010.
Truex finished a career-low 24th in points as he transitioned to his new home. Prior to 2014, the 35-year-old racer had transferred to NASCAR’s post season twice — in 2007 with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and in 2012 with Michael Waltrip Racing. Both seasons resulted in 11th-place finishes.
But in his second year with FRR and Pearn’s first full season as crew chief, Truex has exhibited tremendous consistency with 14 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races of the season. His performance was solid enough to run second in the point standings behind defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick for seven races between May and June.
The first time Truex found himself outside of the top 10 in the point standings all season was after Richmond, when the points were reset. With one win (at Pocono Raceway) entering the Chase, Truex was seeded 11th. After Charlotte, however, Truex is third in the standings, seven points behind Sunday’s winner Joey Logano.
While other Chase teams are feeling pressure, Truex says that’s not the case for Furniture Row.
“We don't have a lot of expectations on us,” Truex said. “I think most people didn't even have us moving through the first round. For us, it's more about personal goals and wanting to prove people wrong and just go out there and really just do a great job.
“I think for some of the guys that are favorites or are expected to be there, I think there's more pressure on them, so I think we're in a great spot. We're just going to go out there and have fun and keep doing what we've done all year long, and hopefully step up our program a little bit in the next couple weeks.
"Who knows? It would sure be nice to get to Homestead and have a shot at this thing.”