Martin Truex Jr. is off to the best start of his career in 2012. Since moving to the Sprint Cup Series in 2006, he has often flashed potential but has been a difficult driver to figure out, maddeningly inconsistent at times. Is Truex Jr. for real after his hot start to the season, or will his promising start vaporize and prove to be just a flash in the pan?
That’s the issue at stake in this episode of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke will agree; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic or black flag if he's dead set in opposition to the idea.
Luke: Before Daytona, I picked Martin Truex Jr. to make the Chase. I don't know what got into me to make such a prediction, but I'm already preparing my acceptance speech for the Genius Awards (is there such a thing?). And I'm certainly not backing away from my prediction now: this guy is for real.
Michael Waltrip Racing is vastly improved in 2012. After making the difficult decision to jettison the only driver to actually win a Cup race in the organization's history (David Reutimann, with two wins), the organization upgraded in a number of ways. Most visible, of course, was the signing of free agent stars Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer, but no less important was the addition of key off-track personnel as well.
Even with the addition of Martin and Bowyer, Truex Jr. has been the team's most consistent and best driver so far. He's second in the points and his worst finish was 17th at Las Vegas. His only other finish outside the top eight was a 12th in the Daytona 500 crapshoot. Outside of those two races, he's been on a torrid pace the entire season—and there is every reason to assume he'll keep it up.
Sure, NASCAR's "other" Junior hasn't won a race yet. But he's been in serious contention on multiple occasions and he's been able to make adjustments throughout the race to be battling for the win at the end. That had been problematic in the past, when Truex was often a fader. He would often show strength early in an event but struggle to keep up with changing track conditions, leading to frustrating results with what had seemed to be a top-5 car.
This year, Truex has been fast, and it's shown up in the stats. He has already led more laps in 2012 than he has during any of the previous four seasons. He won the pole at Texas and led 69 laps, and followed that up by leading 173 laps at Kansas on Sunday before finishing a strong runner-up to Denny Hamlin. His six top-10's are tied for tops on the circuit.
So can Truex keep up this hot streak? Is his career finally taking off after several mediocre seasons at MWR, which is just now maturing into a championship caliber organization? Is his momentum sustainable for the rest of 2012 and beyond?
Yes, yes, and yes. The fact that MWR is stepping it up as a whole is key. Truex has always had the talent to get it done, but has been plagued by inconsistent equipment. All that is changed now, and it won't be long before Truex is celebrating in Victory Lane for the first time since Dover in 2006. Ever since the turnaround at MWR began late last season the No. 56 car has been running near the front of the pack, week in and week out, at all track types.
I'm buying on Truex, and in the context of Bonus Points, that means a checkered flag. Now go win a race and get a checkered flag, Martin—it's been a while!
Sam: One of the more lingering questions in top-level NASCAR over the past several years is about Martin Truex Jr. The two-time Nationwide Series champ (2004 and 2005) jumped into full-time Sprint Cup competition in 2006, making this, 2012, his seventh full season on the circuit. Driving most of the past seven years for prestigious owner Richard Childress, Truex has amassed only a single win in Cup, the spring Dover race back in 2007, almost five full seasons ago. Not coincidentally, that was the only year in which Truex made the Chase; it's been dry bones before and after.
Thus, the proverbial sword grew larger and larger over the head of Mr. Truex, with pressures from sponsor Napa and owner Michael Waltrip growing over the past season or two to make past Nationwide series prominence translate into playoff and title contention in the present. Is the guy for real?
The question concerning Truex's legitimacy as a Cup-level contender have come back full force this season, courtesy of a coming-of-age for Michael Waltrip Racing and Truex's second-place points position. Whether or not Truex should be defined as a contender rests, of course, on what one defines "contender" to mean. For the sake of clarity, it will be defined here as the ability to consistently contend for top-fives, wins, and ultimately, championships.
In order to properly answer the question, then, the main issues in focus become the impact of MWR's recent prowess on Truex's performance, and speculation on how much Truex's performance will hold steady over the next five to ten years. To call Truex a contender, in terms of his entire career, based solely on several months of a surging organization is logically premature.
The Ryan Newmans, Clint Bowers, and Jamie McMurrays of the sport have all experienced "breakout seasons", only to promptly revert to inconsistent ways in following months and seasons. Of course, the issue of an organization's total strength at the time is also a major factor. Nonetheless, the best drivers tend to still contend decently when their organization suffers.
It's not quite time to call Truex a true contender. Several full, not partial, seasons of Chase contention and strong top-five points battling are needed to give proper credence to this issue. Thus, while it's not a black or red flag of absolute denial, the question of Truex Jr.'s legitimacy as a Cup contender gets a yellow flag of extreme caution.
Conclusion: With rave reviews for his performance thus far but mixed feelings on how his future projects, it's a green flag of overall optimism for Martin Truex Jr.