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February 17, 2024

Martin Truex Jr., now a Cup Series elder, still building on racing legacy: ‘It’s nuts how fast time goes by’

Martin Truex Jr. waves during driver introductions in Thursday's 150-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway
James Gilbert
Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Martin Truex Jr. still remembers his first visits to Daytona International Speedway, back when his budding career as a young driver in what’s now called the NASCAR Xfinity Series was starting to take shape. Some two decades later, he’s regarded highly among the sport’s elder statesmen.

Truex’s long-running quest for a victory in stock-car racing’s most prestigious race writes another chapter in Monday’s 66th Daytona 500 (4 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). With Kevin Harvick’s retirement after last year’s campaign, he enters the new NASCAR Cup Series season as the circuit’s oldest driver – just four-plus months older than fellow 43-year-old Denny Hamlin, a teammate of his at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Truex says he marvels at the pace of that progression, from an earlier era in the sport’s history to today.

“It’s very strange. And it’s crazy how fast it happened,” Truex said. “I cannot believe this is my 20th time racing in this race. It just feels like yesterday, I was just coming here for the first time. It’s really … it’s nuts how fast time goes by. And it’s also crazy to see just how much has changed since I first started — the names, the cars, the teams — everything is so different now than it was. Time flies, no doubt about it.”

Truex’s visits to the World Center of Racing these days include a reminder of how close he’s come in NASCAR’s season opener. Images of the speedway’s most iconic moments are displayed on the arcing walls of the Turn 1 infield tunnel, including the checkered-flag image of his narrow loss to Hamlin in the 2016 race – still the closest finish in Daytona 500 history with a .010-second margin of victory. “Not a great memory, but to be part of the closest finish in history here is cool,” said Truex, a magnanimous runner-up that day. “Just wish we were on the other side of it.”

Truex’s Daytona trips these days are a long reach from his DIY beginnings, when he gravitated more to the hands-on side as a driver for his family-owned team in the former Busch North Series. His arrival in NASCAR’s higher ranks was an eye-opener, with a move up to Dale Earnhardt Inc. and the Chance 2 Motorsports team making things more hands-off.

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“When I first got to come down here, I still couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity,” Truex says now. “Basically, up until ’03, I had never once expected or was really 100% working toward being a driver for a living. I was working, I was racing for fun, I was racing as something that’s just, that’s what I did. And I honestly was shocked when I got a call to come test a car for DEI, for Chance 2. Then when I got here, I was like, ‘Damn, I can’t believe I’m here.’ Like I go into the hauler to test for the first time, and my fire suit’s hanging up, and I’m like, ‘I didn’t have to take that to the dry cleaners.’ That’s the kind of things I thought when I first came here.

“And 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. So that’s how much has changed. It’s crazy. And now obviously, I come here now and it’s like, the only thing I want to come here and do is win. It’s the only thing that matters. I don’t have to do anything else, but come here and try to win. So it’s changed quite a lot.”

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Years later, Truex has established a racing portfolio that has him firmly among NASCAR’s elite, with 34 Cup Series victories, two Xfinity championships and crown-jewel wins in the Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600. His 18 full-time years of experience at NASCAR’s top level, and a fire suit patch that identifies him as a Cup Series champion, have afforded him a degree of stature in the garage.

How many more years he’ll keep at it has become a near-annual cycle of rinse-and-repeat questions – When will you decide? Has car owner Joe Gibbs set a timetable? Does the team’s performance affect your thought process? All those reps have made Truex an expert in the art of demurring and hedging. “I got more time last year than I did the year before,” said Truex, who made his return official early last August, “so that’s good.”

When he does make that call, he’ll be faced with another question he’s been asked before, about his legacy in the sport and how others will remember his impact. Truex says it’s a complicated answer since he’s still adding to his accomplishments, but it’s not one that he fixates on.

“I mean, the only thing I ever kind of worry about is just letting people know I tried to do things the right way,” Truex says. “I mean, I don’t know if that’s a big deal or if it’s not a big deal, but I always try to treat people with respect, the way I would want to get treated and do things the right way on the race track, and just be a good teammate, be a good part of a team and be someone that’s fun to be around. But aside from that, I don’t really know. I don’t know that it’s a big deal to me to worry about any of that stuff. I don’t know if it’s because I’m still here doing it, and I don’t really look back much.”

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Time for reflection will come later, potentially coinciding with when Truex becomes eligible for NASCAR Hall of Fame consideration. Every eligible driver ahead of him on NASCAR’s all-time win list – and several below — has been enshrined, and every Cup Series champion except the lesser-known 1950 title winner Bill Rexford has been voted in, making Truex a strong candidate at his current face value.

That’s another legacy question that Truex has entertained only when it’s come up in conversation.

“I’ve only thought about it when guys had mentioned it to me,” he says. “(Hall of Fame executive director) Winston Kelley, he’s always the first one every time I see him, he always brings it up, and it’s really special to me because I listened to him (on the radio with MRN) since I was a kid, so it’s really special to hear that. But I try not to get too caught up in it, and I’m still writing my history. So I’d like to add some more things to it to hopefully get in there the first try.”

First-ballot election, he joked, might make that retirement decision even more timing-dependent.

“I figure I dodged a big bullet with Harvick going already, so he’ll get in his first try, right? So I would imagine that I just have to make sure me and Denny don’t retire at the same time,” Truex said with a laugh. “It’s crazy to think about. It’s wild.”