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Truex gives Bristol his best shot, comes up second

August 28, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

With a second-place finish at Bristol on Saturday, Martin Truex Jr. jumped up four spots in the standings to 17th.

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A handful of drivers came to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend needing to win -- primarily to make a potential impact on the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- but with the exception of race winner Brad Keselowski, no one gave it a gutsier shot than Martin Truex Jr.

A two-tire call by crew chief Chad Johnson put Truex's No. 56 in second at the finish.

And in a season that started out reasonably well, only to see it fall to the mid-20s in the standings, then reverse course after a mid-season crew chief change, Truex posted his best finish in four years on Saturday.

Truex didn't hesitate to say he hadn't had as much fun in several years.

"It was back in '07 -- the last time I run second or won, you know?" Truex said. "It's a helluva good feeling when you can see the leader at the end of one of these things. You know you're in the ballpark and you got something for 'em.

"It feels good to be finishing up front -- it's been a while. We've had some good races here lately -- fourth at [Watkins] Glen -- so trying to build a little bit of momentum here towards the end of the year.

"The guys on the NAPA Toyota have been working really, really hard -- all the buys at the shop, working hard on our stuff and just got to thank them for sticking with it and working hard."

But on this night, no one worked harder than Truex. After the race -- in which he outran Jeff Gordon, who had one of the race's dominant cars, for the last 20 laps after taking two tires on his final pit stop to gain track position -- Truex said over the radio, "That's the hardest I ever drove in my damn life."

And Gordon knew it. The outcome had the four-time champion shaking his head a bit, trying to recall when he'd been forced to race that hard, only to come up short.

"It's been a while, man -- it's been a while," Gordon said. "But I just love having a race car like we had [Saturday] night. We had so much fun, but we just needed not to be in fifth on that last restart. We needed to either be in the outside lane or a little bit further forward, and we had something for anybody."

As it was, Truex didn't allow it to happen. Truex was leading at the last restart with 80 laps to go, but a problem he'd had all night reared up, Keselowski passed him and the race was over -- even if the drama wasn't.

* Press Pass: Truex on runner-up finish, season turnaround, new crew chief | Final Laps

It all started with the pit call.

"I don't think it was that big of a gamble, really -- the position we were in, we had to do it," Truex said. "We took two [tires] the first stop of the race and that got us track position and we were able to maintain.

"Overall, it was just a great night for our NAPA Toyota. We had a lot of speed on the longer runs. We'd drive up to seventh or eighth on every run. We were off a little bit on the restarts and it took me four or five laps to get going and I'd lose a couple spots -- and it'd take me the whole run to get 'em back.

"About half the laps we matched times and the other half, we could actually beat [Keselowski] a little, but it wasn't enough to get there.""

--MARTIN TRUEX JR.

"It seemed like I passed and raced the same cars all night. We'd pass them every run and then lose spots on the restarts -- so we had to take a gamble to get track position again. Had we done it a little bit earlier and got that track position, we may have had something for them at the end.

"About half the laps we matched times and the other half, we could actually beat [Keselowski] a little, but it wasn't enough to get there."

With 20 laps left in the race, Truex was 1.558 seconds behind Keselowski. He cut that margin to 1.182 seconds three laps later, then watched the gap grow to nearly 2.1 seconds as traffic played a role and Gordon chomped on his rear bumper.

"Pretty much, on all the long runs we were as fast as the leader, or faster, all night long -- we just couldn't get there," Truex said. "That two-tire stop got us up there; and once again, I couldn't run with Brad for five or six laps. I was too tight on them restarts and he checked out and then we just kind of maintained. It was a great night for all of us."

It gives Truex some light, in what at times has been pure gloom.

"We've had a real up-and-down season," Truex said. "We've had some bright spots, we've had some really tough days. so it's really nice to come here and have a good finish. Those guys will continue to work hard, they've stuck behind us and I just want to thank all them and Rob [Kauffman, co-owner] and Michael [Waltrip, co-owner] and everybody. If we keep plugging away we might have a good [points] finish."

A second-place finish Saturday bumped Truex to 17th in the standings, and he said his team's recent runs, including five top-10 finishes in the past 11 races, were a positive point as they look ahead to 2012.

"I think it really is," Truex said. "The past few months, we've had some really good runs [and] we've been fairly consistent. Our struggles are still the mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks. We're missing something there, because at Michigan last week, we really struggled all weekend. We're not really sure what to expect next weekend at Atlanta, but Chad, my crew chief and all the guys are working hard on it.

"We're gonna try some new stuff next weekend at Atlanta, try to be better. But then again, to come here... In the spring we led most of the first half of this thing and faded and finished somewhere in the 20s -- 17th or 18th or something.

"We worked really hard to come back and to be better in the second half of the race, and to be good on the long runs. But Chad -- I owe it all to him, he did it for me and we had a great car all night."

Truex said it was entirely feasible for him to win one of the last 12 races of this season.

"For sure, I think it is," Truex said. "We've been in position to win one or two already this year, not even counting here. But I still look back at Richmond as the one we give away. We had the car to beat there, so we look forward to going back there in a couple weeks and Atlanta's always been a good track for me.

"You just never know. The competition is so tight and we've got a great team. We can win a race -- it's just a matter of doing all the little things right."