Truex Reflects Back Ahead Of 20th Daytona 500 Try

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Martin Truex Jr. (Matthew Thacker/LAT for Toyota Racing photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A long week ahead of the 66th running of the Daytona 500 gave Martin Truex Jr. plenty of time to look back before casting his eyes forward on the season ahead.

Truex knows he’s already built a memorable career in stock-car racing, with a NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2017, back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series titles in 2004 and 2005, and 34 Cup Series wins over the course of two decades in the sport.

But the one thing missing from Truex’s decorated resume is a Daytona 500 victory, something that he admitted prior to race day does still eat at him somewhat given his past in the Great American Race.

Truex was on the losing end of the closest finish in Daytona 500 history – a .010-second defeat to now-teammate Denny Hamlin in 2016 – which marks his best race result in 19 prior tries at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

Entering his 20th attempt to win the Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing this year, Truex said Wednesday that the 2016 race is the one that still sits in his memory vividly as “the one that got away.”

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Martin Truex Jr. (78) finished second to Denny Hamlin in the 2016 Daytona 500, his best result in the event. (Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

“I guess finishing second [is my best memory],” he noted. “It’s not a great memory, but to be part of the closest finish in history here is cool. I just wish we’d been on the other side of it.

“I still don’t appreciate [the finish], to be honest,” Truex added, evoking laughter from the assembled media. “Every time we drive into the tunnel here, the picture [of that finish] is on the wall. Every time we come to Daytona, it’s something that gets talked about, so you never fully get away from it.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to be on the wrong side of it, but still a cool moment to be a part of.”

Truex joins Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and others among the driver who have entered their 20th start in the Great American Race still looking for their first Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Earnhardt, Martin, and Wallace have all received their permanent places in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and Truex will be a surefire lock for induction when he finally hangs up the helmet.

But he knows what a Daytona 500 win would mean for his legacy, and it’s something that Truex wants – badly.

“It’s hard to understand what it really feels like to win the Daytona 500. When I go back and watch guys who have won that race for the first time, whether they’ve won a lot and won championships or won it early on in their career, I can just see the excitement and how much it means to them,” Truex noted. “I don’t think it’s something I can [fully] understand until I can make it happen myself and experience a win there in the biggest race in our sport.

“It’d be huge to win, that’s for sure, to be able to get our Bass Pro Shops Toyota in victory lane and covered in confetti.”

To truly appreciate Truex’s history in the sport, however, one must trace his NASCAR career back to those years in the early 2000s, when he was a young NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series upstart from Mayetta, N.J., just looking for his place among the all-time greats.

In those days, he was driving for Chance 2 Motorsports, the team co-founded by Teresa Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. whose remnants ultimately morphed into the modern-day JR Motorsports operation seen today dominating Xfinity Series competition year-in and year-out.

It’s a period Truex remembers fondly as the moment his life took its present course, even if there was an intimidation factor during his first Daytona 500 experience in 2005 with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

“My life has changed drastically, as anyone could imagine,” Truex told RACER in the lead-up to Monday’s Daytona 500. “When I first got to come down here, I still couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity. Basically, up until ’03, I never once expected or was really 100 percent working toward being a driver for a living. I was working — I was racing for fun, I was racing as something … I just did what I did.

“I honestly was shocked when I got a call to come test a car for DEI for Chance 2,” continued Truex, who drove a third car for DEI in that 2005 race and finished 34th after a top-10 start. “When I got [to Daytona], I was like, ‘Damn, I can’t believe I’m here.’ I’d go in the hauler to test for the first time and my firesuit was hanging up and I’m like, ‘I didn’t have to take that to the dry cleaners.’

“I just remember I didn’t have to work on the car. I didn’t have to do anything but show up and drive it. It didn’t make any sense. That’s how much has changed. It’s crazy.”

But while so much has changed, one thing has remained constant over the last 19 years: Truex’s burning desire to finally taste victory in the Great American Race.

Would Truex be at peace with his career if he doesn’t win the Daytona 500?

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Martin Truex Jr. is seeking his first win in the Daytona 500. (Gavin Baker/LAT for Toyota Racing photo)

“I don’t know if I’d be completely disappointed with my career as a whole if, someday when I retire, I look back and I’m like, ‘Ah, I didn’t win that race,’” he explained. “I don’t know if that is a big deal to me or not. I still have opportunities to get it done, so I try not to think about it.

“There have been a lot of great drivers that [never] won it,” he added. “But as we sit here, I can’t really imagine not getting it done. I appreciate the opportunity to try.”

That chance comes Monday afternoon, where a rain postponement has done nothing to dampen the buzz surrounding Daytona Int’l Speedway ahead of the most prestigious race of the NASCAR season.

“This is the biggest one of the year. It kicks off a new season as well, which is kind of interesting … because it’s always important to kick off the season on a high note,” Truex tipped.

“For me, this is my 20th try at the Daytona 500 and, hopefully, it’s my turn to win it.”

The 66th Daytona 500 is slated for a 4 p.m. green flag Monday afternoon, with race coverage airing on FOX, the Motor Racing Network, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.

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About Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman is Motorsports Hotspot’s News Editor and Race Face Digital’s Director of Content, as well as a veteran of more than a decade in the racing industry as a professional, though he’s spent his entire life in the garage and pit area.