Ryan: Does NASCAR really want Martin Truex Jr. to be the bad guy?
Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy.
He does good things for other people. He finds the good in some very bad situations. He is good in the way he carries himself in the face of great adversity, whether a potentially career-ending sponsor loss or a life-and-death matter.
And yet none of that good seems to benefit him on the racetrack.
“I’ve told Martin forever he’s too nice,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Sunday’s postrace show, essentially noting the former teammate and longtime confidante he loves as a buddy also is the same guy behind the wheel.
Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy … and that probably cost him another victory Sunday.
Here is the quandary for Truex – and really for the collective NASCAR universe:
In order to win more frequently, and possibly in order to defend his 2017 championship, Truex knows that, on the track, he has to stop being a nice guy.
But what if -- because of his God-given skillset, his easygoing demeanor and his code of ethics -- he can’t stop being a nice guy?
And even if he could, do we really want him to stop being a nice guy – even if it means he finally breaks through for victories at short tracks and restrictor-plate tracks?
It is no coincidence that Truex, one of the Cup circuit’s most selfless drivers who rarely gets caught gouging anyone, remains winless at the two types of tracks that offer the greatest reward for selfishness and dirty pool.
The No. 78 Toyota driver said it himself last year: In order to win at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway, he knows he “has to be more of a jerk” at the tracks dependent on pack drafting (and all of its hostile blocking and broken promises) because he “gives too much room.”
Truex is never a jerk, though. Just witness his 2018 season – four victories but who knows how many more if he would have laid the bumper more aggressively and forcefully the way others often have done to him?
At Bristol Motor Speedway, Truex was charging to the front with 70 laps remaining when he was wrecked by Kyle Busch during a pass for second.
At the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, he was cruising toward a victory when he was clipped by Jimmie Johnson and knocked out of first entering the final turn.
At Martinsville Speedway, Truex seemed headed to the first checkered flag on a Cup short track when Joey Logano booted him from the lead off the final corner.
The simplest way to win on a short track is to drive through the guy in front of you. It’s a move that Truex rarely makes, and Sunday was no exception.
For several laps around the 0.526-mile oval, he stalked Logano and waited to make a clean pass for the lead until Lap 499 of 500 despite several opportunities to drill the No. 22 Ford earlier.
You can argue the moral relativism all day about whether Logano (who also is a good guy, by the way) was justified in reacting to losing the lead by making that move (and with a championship berth at stake, the Team Penske star has a virtually airtight case), but what’s indisputable is that Truex didn’t play nearly as rough as Logano did on the last lap.
Detractors probably will say that maybe it’s not so much that Truex doesn’t want to race that way as much as that he can’t necessarily race that way.
He is among the steadiest, smoothest and tidiest drivers in NASCAR. His career renaissance of 17 wins in the past four seasons has been marked by his mastery of 1.5-mile tracks (where it’s about setup and pure speed) and road courses (where strategy and perfect laps often determine winners). You won’t find any wins by Truex in which he led only the final lap.
He drives to the limits of his car and rarely beyond them – and almost never at other’s expense. He has much more in common with Mark Martin or even Rusty Wallace, who always seemed in a similar way to be on the short end of the stick with Dale Earnhardt Sr. in their many famous tussles.
Being a good guy can be a tough business. There still might be some good that comes from Sunday’s third-place finish for Truex and Furniture Row Racing.
Based on the bellicose stances in the seething postrace interviews of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn, it seemed as if the team with a natural rebellious streak had its recalcitrant swagger back for the first time since the announcement of its impending shutdown.
Furniture Row Racing, once described as “a band of misfits” by Truex, has predicated most of its championship-caliber success by embracing the “Us Against the World!” mentality. The Unconventional Team That Could still will be closing its doors in Denver after three more weeks, but it now has a defiant rallying cry to spur its finishing kick at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And if any more motivation were needed, Sunday spawned reams of bulletin-board material on social media and some corners of establishment media.
Truex’s angry reaction was shamed on Twitter for being “too whiny” and his moves were dissected to the nth degree. “Why did you race so fairly and cleanly,” the angry mob seemed to be demanding, “when you could have punted the other guy and scooted to a win?”
Because Martin Truex Jr. is a good guy. A nice guy.
Should he really have to change that?
The answer says a lot more about us than him.