Auto-Owners Insurance Racing: Martin Truex Jr. Bristol Dirt Race Advance

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● Truex and the No. 19 Toyota Camry team for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) set the tone for the season right out of the gate by winning the 150-lap feature in the non-points Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial oliseum on Feb. 5. Truex won his heat race, then went on to lead the final 25 laps of the feature en route to the victory.

● Truex finished 19th and 21st in the opening two Bristol dirt races so far in the Cup Series in 2021 and 2022, respectively. He started fifth and led 126 laps of the 2021 event before a flat tire during the green-white-checkered finish ruined his victory bid. He did score the win in the inaugural NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race held on the Bristol dirt in 2021, driving the No. 51 Toyota Tundra.

● Easter NASCAR: NASCAR’s top series will be racing on Easter for just the 13th time in its history and the second time since Rusty Wallace brought home the victory at Richmond (Va.) Raceway on Easter Sunday 1989. Interestingly enough, the first Cup Series race held on Easter was in 1953 and also was held on a dirt track. Dick Passwater brought home that win on a .75-mile dirt track named Charlotte (N.C.) Speedway, which was located off Little Rock Road just south of what now is the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

● Feels like the 493rd time: Prior to the NASCAR Cup Series’ more than 50-year hiatus from dirt-track racing that ended in 2021 at Bristol, there were 490 Cup Series races held on dirt between June 19, 1949, and Sept. 30, 1970. Sunday’s third dirt race at Bristol will be No. 493.

In the Pits: A unique wrinkle to this weekend’s Bristol dirt race will be the absence of the usual over-the-wall pit crews. Teams will not be permitted to change tires, add fuel or work on their vehicles except during the breaks between stages. Exceptions will be made for vehicles involved in incidents. However, teams are not required to pit during stage breaks. Those that elect to stay on the track during stage intermissions will line up for the ensuing restart ahead of the cars that pit. There will be no race onto or off of pit road, a controlled pit-stop procedure similar to the format used at Bristol the first two seasons of the dirt race.

● Ahead at this Stage: Truex leads the NASCAR Cup Series with 56 stage wins since the beginning of the stage era in 2017. He is the only driver with 10 or more stage sweeps, as well. While Truex came close to winning a stage at the season-opening Daytona 500, he does not have a stage win so far this year. Last weekend at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, Truex finished fourth in Stage 2 to collect valuable bonus points that could prove important at the end of the regular season.

● With his 11th-place finish at Richmond last weekend, Truex heads to the Bristol dirt race ninth in the standings with 198 points, 65 out of the lead.

In the first year of the Bristol dirt race, you started fifth, led 126 laps and finished 19th. Last year, you started 30th and finished 21st. Do your two races on dirt at Bristol tell the whole story?

“It definitely doesn’t tell the whole story that first year in 2021. We had a shot at winning and got a flat tire on the green-white-checker, so we restarted third there and were a top-two or top-three car there all day and that was pretty unfortunate. Last year, I think that finish tells the story a bit closer, we just weren’t that good. We went there with the new car and practiced, and the track just completely changed and swung in a completely different direction at night during the race and really caught us off guard, and our car was just really bad at night. Hopefully we’ll be a little bit smarter about that this year and not dial ourselves out. That’s the hard part about dirt, when you don’t have a lot of experience you kind of just guess. That first year, we guessed right and nailed it on the setup and the car was super, and last year we were super loose in practice and we figured we needed to tighten it up and the track got really loose and the car wouldn’t turn well in the race. Hoping this year we have it right and we can keep our Auto-Owners Insurance Camry up front.”

Do you enjoy racing on the dirt at Bristol?

“I really do. It’s been fun. Obviously last year it wasn’t as much fun because we were so far off. The first year was a lot of fun. Got to do the Truck race and got to win that. I enjoy it, I just don’t know if I have it figured out, yet. We’ll have an opportunity to practice and hopefully we are much closer to what we need to be like we were in 2021 with our Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota Camry this weekend.”

What are your memories from winning the Truck Series race at Bristol in 2021?

“I was surprised with how fast we were. I remember practicing and thinking we felt OK, but certainly didn’t expect to just drive through the field from starting 15th and taking the lead and just leading the whole race. That was a pleasant surprise and was a ton of fun. I definitely didn’t go there expecting that to happen. I just went there trying to get me some experience to help me on Sunday and it definitely helped.”

When the Cup Series raced on the Bristol dirt for the second year in a row in 2022, did it feel like the racing was more aggressive with the previous year’s experience guys had under their belts on dirt in these cars?

“I don’t think it could get much more aggressive. I didn’t have a straight panel on my car and I think all four tires were pointing in different directions from the things we bent. I don’t see how it could get any more aggressive. You saw what happened at the end of the race for the win, as well. A lot of it depends on the track and how wide the groove is. Can we run side-by-side with two- and three-wide like we did last year? That will be a big deal. Personally, I thought the track was better the first year but a lot of the dirt guys felt like the track was better last year. We’ll see where it ends up. It’s dirt, so it’s different every time. It depends on the weather and the amount of moisture and all those things as far as what you can and can’t do based on the track conditions.”

You have a lot of drivers in the Cup Series with dirt experience. Are you surprised that the first two Cup Series winners on the Bristol dirt didn’t have a dirt-racing background?

“I think it’s pretty surprising, probably more so the first year with Joey (Logano) winning. Last year, I feel like the dirt guys definitely had an advantage. They were going to run 1-2 without the dive-bomb move that took out the first two guys and let Kyle (Busch) slip by and win. I think they have an advantage this year, first of all. And just the way the track was last year, as I mentioned how different it was throughout the weekend, I think that was the big advantage for those guys.”

This will be the 493rd Cup Series race on dirt with all but three of those occurring before the modern era. With NASCAR celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, does a race on dirt kind of fit with that theme of celebrating the sports history?

“I think it does. It was something that we probably could have been doing for a long time. I was definitely skeptical when we were going to do it for the first time and just thinking about what this was going to be like. It all turned out fine. It’s just figuring out how to keep the dust down. Years ago, they didn’t run windshields and there weren’t 38 competitive cars on the track. For us, the dirt is just a big challenge from a vison perspective. With windshields, when you get the track too wet and get mud on your windshield, you can’t see. And we have so many cars, the cars are so heavy and the races are so long that it just dries the track out so fast and it becomes very dusty and you can’t see. It’s a big, big challenge to try and balance all of that so you can see where you are going.”

You go from a road course to a paved short track to a dirt track in a matter of just three weeks. Is that variety a challenge for you as a competitor?

“It definitely makes it tougher. It’s tougher to be a consistent frontrunner now than it’s ever been in our sport because we are doing so many different things. We are still trying to figure out a new car along the way and not having a lot of practice. All of those things have really made it a big challenge. And that’s why last year you saw so many different winners, and I think this year you never know who’s going to be good each weekend.”

You have Truck and Xfinity Series wins Bristol. How important is it for you to get a Bristol Cup Series trophy?

“It’s definitely a big one. I really wanted that dirt race two years ago and felt like we had a shot at it. Bristol hasn’t been great to me over the years. We’ve had some really great runs, and I feel like every time I’m running inside the top-five, something happens. I’ve had so many loose wheels and so many flat tires and so many things happen there over the years, it’s just been crazy. I think it’s one of my worst racetracks as far as average finish. It’s definitely one of my better tracks as far as average running position, though. Hopefully this year we can get that turned around and get that first win there, either on dirt this weekend or on the concrete in the fall.”


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