Martin Truex Jr. feeling ‘zero’ pressure as defense of NASCAR Cup title begins

NASCAR


Martin Truex Jr. enjoys efficiencies, and that can lead to some blunt, concise answers during interviews.

Take for instance the question of why it’s so hard for drivers to repeat as NASCAR Cup champions.

“Why? I don’t know,” he said.

He then later surmised: “It’s hard.”

Truex begins the hard task of repeating this weekend, with qualifying Sunday for the Daytona 500 followed by the 75-lap, 17-driver Clash at Daytona, a non-points-paying event.

For any driver not named Jimmie Johnson, repeating as a Cup champion has turned into a formidable task. Johnson won five consecutive titles from 2006 to 2010, but no one else has repeated since Jeff Gordon went back-to-back in 1997 and 1998.

So does that mean the pressure is on the 37-year-old Truex?

Not exactly. Winning a Cup title in his 12th full-time season has put him in a mode of no worries.

For the longest time, it appeared Truex would never win a Cup title. A two-time Xfinity Series champion, he posted just two wins and never finished in the top 10 in the season standings in his first nine years in Cup. After a miserable first year at Furniture Row Racing, he won a race and finished fourth in 2015, then won four races and finished 11th in 2016 and went on to enjoy a career year with eight victories and the championship in 2017.

“I feel zero pressure at all,” Truex said. “I feel nothing. Like, I’m so confident. Honestly, I really feel like we can go and start the season right where we left off, just pick up where we left off and continue as a team as we’ve done the last couple years.

“We know what to work on, and we’re just going to keep going down that road and hopefully have more success, but you never know.”

NASCAR instituted its 10-race playoff format in 2004, and in 2014 initiated a knockout-style format in which drivers are eliminated every three races, with four drivers ultimately having an equal shot at the title in the final race.

“It’s that whole team element,” Johnson said in trying to explain his success. “It’s not only the team, but also the rules. It’s such a different world today than when I won my five. You know how long the season is and how things have to go your way and momentum, it’s super tough.

“We had all of the right elements.”

The rules are different, and that could mean it is more difficult. Or is it?

“I think more so now than even before [Johnson’s] time, it’s hard because of this format,” Truex said. “Years ago, we had normal point race all year long. I would have to say that is way, way easier to repeat than what we have now currently, without any shadow of a doubt.

“It’s just going to get harder, and that stat is going to probably live on for it has potential to live on for a long, long time, and it’s going to get harder to repeat.”

The knockout format in some ways makes it easier and harder. With four drivers being part of the last race, a consistently strong driver should have a better chance at a title than in previous formats, where typically only two (sometimes three) were still in the hunt in the final race. But a driver who dominates throughout a season doesn’t get to reap the benefits as much since that driver will be tied in the standings with three others going into Homestead.

The new format instituted in 2017, though, could help those looking to repeat. With playoff points earned throughout the year by winning stages and races, a driver has a bigger margin for error if misfortune strikes during the playoffs.

“I went to Daytona in July and … I said at the time, ‘Truex has all these bonus points; he is pretty much going to Homestead now, the way they were running at the 1.5-mile tracks,'” said 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch. “I am not saying I predicted him to win in July, but I think it will be easier to repeat with this bonus point system, because the rich get richer with the stage wins.”

Johnson isn’t so sure.

“I’ve been of the opinion — granted last year was a different situation with the stage points — going to these elimination rounds, that adds a whole different level that I didn’t have to worry about [during] my five,” Johnson said. “My first one in 2006, I don’t even know if I would have made the final four with the way things took place.

“I crashed in the first one at New Hampshire, and then the one with Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] and [Brian] Vickers [winning at Talladega], I crashed out. So that probably wouldn’t have allowed me to even transfer. In general, the elimination rounds make it more difficult.”

Johnson, who won just one stage last year, then joked when trying to think about the impact of stage-winning points: “I didn’t earn enough stage points last year to experience [a difference].”

Truex did, winning 19 stages and earning 69 playoff points throughout the year, allowing him to have a 27-point edge on second going into the final elimination round.

That is perhaps why Truex has so much confidence. Or maybe it’s just that he has that elusive Cup championship.

“We’ll just have to see how it all goes, but I’m not feeling any pressure,” Truex said. “I’m not anxious at all, and I’ll be ready when we get to Daytona.”



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