Martin Truex Jr., second from left, sprays his team after winning Sunday’s Sprint Cup race in Sonoma, Calif. (AP Photo)
Prior to his win on Sunday in Sonoma, Martin Truex Jr. was just another NASCAR Sprint Cup driver nervously riding out a long winless streak.
It had been 218 races since Truex last pulled into Victory Lane at Dover, a streak that stretched all the way back to 2007, Truex’s second full season with Dale Earnhardt Inc. The drought outlasted DEI’s merger with Chip Ganassi’s team and Truex’s defection to Michael Waltrip Racing. It even outlasted MWR’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with in the Cup garage.
When Truex made the jump from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to Waltrip’s fledgling team in 2010, the move was seen as a gamble on Truex’s part. In reality, it was a marriage of a driver and a race team that both possessed the same maddening asset — unrealized potential.
While Truex continued to show flashes of brilliance, MWR burst onto the scene as a serious title contender last season when Clint Bowyer finished second in the points standings behind Cup champ Brad Keselowski.
But the evolution of MWR was hardly the overnight success story it was made out to be. In reality, it was the culmination of several key personnel moves that included bringing in a couple high-profile drivers, a shrewd director of competition and countless workers at the shop that toil away anonymously every week.
However, while many people played a role in the turnaround, it was Truex who gave MWR an air of credibility at a time that Waltrip’s team was fighting desperately to gain respect in the sport. For that reason, it was shocking to hear the rumors emerging earlier this summer that Truex might have been on his way out at MWR.
It wouldn’t have been the first time a driver went from the penthouse to the outhouse at MWR. David Reutimann gave the organization its first Cup win in 2009 and even followed it up with another in 2010. But Reutimann never came close to making the Chase and, as a result, he found himself looking for a ride after the 2011 season.
If Waltrip is to be believed, Truex’s job was never in serious jeopardy. Of course, for a driver that famously started his Cup career with a 462-race winless streak before finally breaking through in the 2001 Daytona 500, Truex’s streak was nothing to get too worried about.
Still, it’s easy for an owner to say that a driver’s job was never in jeopardy during a Victory Lane interview. After all, hindsight is 20/20. But Waltrip was on the record in the week leading up to Sonoma as having told anyone who would listen that Truex and his crew chief, Chad Johnston, were going to win despite the fact that Truex had finished inside the top 15 at Sonoma only once before Sunday.
Waltrip’s rationale for the bold prediction was simple: Truex and Johnston were ready. They had been beaten down long enough and were ready to respond in a big way.
In Waltrip’s eyes, the potential Truex arrived at MWR with is finally on the verge of being realized. While Reutimann was a driver who appeared to be peaking, Truex is just starting to scratch the surface when it comes to his ability as a racer.
Truex is in line to make the Chase for the second season in a row, and with the weight of the streak off his shoulders, he could be closing in on another MWR breakthrough.
Time will tell whether Sunday’s win was a monumental moment for MWR or just a fleeting triumph. But as Waltrip and Truex sipped wine in Victory Lane, they looked like the two smartest men in the place.
They placed bets on each other back in 2010, and on Sunday, they laughed all the way to the pay window.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:05 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.
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