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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Martin Truex Jr

Martin Truex Jr Age: 26
0 wins, 2 top 5's, 5 top 10's, 11 top 15's
Avg start: 21.2 Avg finish: 20.8
Points standing: 19 Driver Rating: 71.3

#1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy Crew Chief: Kevin Manion

A year ago Martin Truex Jr was the favorite for Rookie of the Year. Some writers went as far as predicting he'd make the Chase. After two straight Busch championships, the predictions made sense. After running seven Cup races in 2005, Truex was more than ready for full time Cup action. A funny thing happened, Truex had a typical rookie season filled with mistakes, run-ins with veterans, and crashes mixed in with some good runs.

Truex spent the first half of the season running between 15th and 20th. He had one top ten in the first 18 races. He had several nice runs, some with deserving finishes (8th at Texas) and some not (finished 22nd at Phoenix after running out of fuel). One of his toughest days came at the spring Bristol race. Fighting to get a lap back, he was spun by Jeff Gordon. After some minor repairs, he returned to the track in search of Gordon. After trading paint with Gordon, Tony Stewart dumpedTruex for holding up the lead-lap cars. His day was done and a lesson was painfully learned.


One of the highlights of his season came in the Busch series. In April he won the Busch race at Talladega in a Dale Earnhardt Sr. paint scheme. It was also his third straight Busch win at Talladega. Unfortunately he was caught in an early crash in the Cup race, proving again that momentum doesn't really exist race to race. The following week he lost an engine, his thirdDNF in five races.

Aside from bad luck and crashes, one of the biggest challenges for the #1 team was a lack of experience. Crew Chief Kevin "Bono" Manion was with Truex for the last two years in Busch, but had never been a crew chief at the Cup level. It took the team almost the entire first half of the season to accumulate enough notes to figure out fast setups.DEI has one of the top Busch programs, but is middle of the pack at the Cup level. This also makes for a tougher transition when the equipment is not elite. While they waited for the cars to get more speed,Truex still managed to finish races. From Darlington to the second California race, Truex completed 99% of the laps.

The second half of was a big improvement. The overall results didn't show immediately, but Truex and Manion started figuring out some tracks the second time around. The speed finally improved during the Chase. Truex scored a sixth at Dover, an 11th at Kansas and a 5th at Talladega. He ran inside the top 10 the whole day at Atlanta before a crash with 19 laps to go. The following week Truex was running fifth with two laps to go when Scott Riggs crashed and Truex was caught in it. He wound up 11th. Truex's finest race was the finale at Homestead. He finished second, led 27 laps and had a driver rating of 111.4.

The final ten races showed what everyone expected from Truex. With his late season success, he finished 19th in the standings. Overall it was a solid debut while also showing a glimpse of what Truex can do with good cars. Good cars will be the key in 2007. Truex and Manion have good chemistry and now have experience to build on when adjusting the car. It's up to DEI to continue to produce, and improve their engines and chassis. Paul Menard will drive a third full time car. That could pull personnel and resources away from the #1 team. Menard will have to qualify for at least the first five races, meaning extra attention will be given to his cars and engines. There is also the issue ofDEI's foggy management picture.

One of Truex's strengths is taking care of equipment. Although he had 5 DNF's, he was second among rookies with 21 lead lap finishes. One thing Truex must control is his emotions. The Bristol incident illustrated how aggressive Truex can get. He had a similar run-in at a Richmond Busch race in 2005. Every driver has days of struggle and frustration, but losing control is an easy way to turn a 21st finish into a 41st.


DEI's strength in 2006 was their intermediate program, although Truex is capable of running well at almost any track. He is strong at plate tracks and should get more help this season in the draft. He is also strong at Dover, where he won twice in the Busch series and scored a 6th in Cup. He won the Mexico City Busch road race in 2005, and has also run well at short tracks like Bristol and Richmond. Although his driving style is similar to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr, he is a superior qualifier. A pole win is a real possibility next season.

As long as Truex gets the proper support he has the talent to run up front. Making the Chase is a long shot this season, but Truex should improve his finishes in year 2. A top 15 points finish along with 5 top fives and 10-15 top tens is the likely forecast forTruex. A win is not likely, but not out of the question either. Maybe the best news is that expectations for Truex are returning to previous heights.

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