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June 16, 2024

Denny Hamlin reflects on Truex legacy, offers Daytona 500 ride: ‘Tell me the word’

NEWTON, Iowa — When Martin Truex Jr. announced his retirement from full-time racing in the NASCAR Cup Series in a Friday news conference at Iowa Speedway, he noted that he wasn’t disappearing and that he’d still remain involved in the sport. Truex wasn’t certain about what his ambassador role with Joe Gibbs Racing or a part-time driving schedule might entail, but longtime JGR teammate Denny Hamlin stepped in later that afternoon with a turn-key option.

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“I told him that I will have his Daytona 500 car ready immediately,” said Hamlin, co-owner of Toyota affiliate team 23XI Racing. “Tell me the word. 100%. I would 100% do that. … Any time that Martin gets bored and wants to run Cup, we would have a seat for him for sure.”

Hamlin and fellow JGR teammates Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs were in the back of the press room for Truex’s announcement Friday, offering their presence and support for the future Hall of Famer as he opens his next chapter in life. Hamlin’s shared tenure with Truex on the JGR roster is a six-year overlap, but their entire Cup Series careers have ridden on parallel lines, with both entering stock-car racing’s big leagues as rookies in 2006.

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The pair are also winning races well into their 40s, and Hamlin says Truex’s chance to reach an ultimate goal by going out on top is a real one.

“You’ve heard guys that have retired say that they just knew when that moment was right, and I think that Martin, that he had that light bulb go off where he was going to be fine with stepping away,” Hamlin says. “And so, I don’t know what that feels like exactly yet, but certainly, it’s different for everyone. And so I think it’s awesome that the guy is going to step away from the sport and do what I said I hoped I could do, and that is win my final race, right? He’s still good enough to be one of the greats in our sport here at whatever age he is, and he’s got just as great a shot at going out as a champion as anyone does.”

Tributes flowed after Truex’s announcement at Iowa Speedway, where the Cup Series races for the first time Sunday, and more are sure to follow as the end of the season draws closer. Several drivers shared their memories of Truex’s unassuming, even reserved style, with Bell noting: “He has no ego. He has no ‘I’m better than you’ attitude.”

Those observations were also shared by Hamlin, who could not recall a time when Truex had raised his ire, but who also praised his teammate’s understated excellence.

“It’s hard to believe I’ve been teammates with Martin as long as I have, and I’ve never had a ‘what the [expletive], Martin!’ moment,” Hamlin said. “Never, I just never had. I’m sure that he’s said that to me, about me in his head because of the things that I’ve done as his teammate, but I’ve never had that moment. … He’s just … he’s so respectful. He reminds me of Jimmie Johnson. I think he’s so underrated as far as the natural ability to drive a car fast. I have to work tremendously hard — week in, week out — to run the speed that Martin Truex runs week in, week out. I have to work really hard to keep up with him, and so I just think he’s one of the most naturally gifted drivers that our series has seen in quite some time, but he’s just not flashy about it. That’s the only difference in him and others that have been great in the Cup Series in the past. So when I think about Martin, I just try to think of, have I ever had a moment where I’ve said, ‘Man, I can’t believe he did that.’ And the answer is no. He’s always just done the right thing 100% of the time, and that’s just something that’s hard to do.”

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Hamlin noted the contrasts between the two, saying how much Truex savored his moments of downtime while keeping busy was more his style. “We couldn’t be more opposite,” Hamlin said, “but there’s no one that I envy probably more than him.”

Truex is the latest Cup Series champion to join a list of recent retirees, a changing of the guard that’s included contemporaries in Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. When Hamlin won Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors back in 2006, he bested a group that included Truex, Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, David Stremme and JJ Yeley.

Next season, Hamlin will be the last of that rookie class still competing full-time in the Cup Series, and he will also become the circuit’s oldest driver. Both are currently 43 years old, but Truex is roughly 4 1/2 months older.

“Martin was just the barometer for success and speed when we were coming into the Cup Series,” Hamlin said. “And so, man, it certainly doesn’t feel like I’m the oldest, but I guess when you kind of put it all in perspective and seeing these guys peel off, I certainly feel it, but my mind doesn’t make me believe that I’m the oldest.”