Feb 21, 2016; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin (11) beats NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Martin Truex Jr. (78) to win the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports)
It was the legendary Dale Earnhardt who famously said “second place is the first loser.” I’m not so sure that applies in regard to Martin Truex Jr., one of the dark-horse favorites in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Truex Jr., whose father also was a NASCAR driver, finished second at the recent Daytona 500. I guess that makes him first loser. But if you were watching the cars speed toward the checkered flag, you probably won’t remember him as such.
I will remember him as the guy I thought had won.
Truex Jr. might have been the first loser, but it was only by inches to Denny Hamlin. When I saw it in real time, I thought he had reached the line first.
It could have been the camera angle.
Or it could have been because I am familiar with his story, and that he seems a bit of an outsider. It’s always cool when an outsider can knock off insiders on the big stage. For a while, when he was young, Martin Truex Jr. worked on his family’s clam fishing boats, and it was hard work, especially when it was bitter cold and those mooring ropes froze over.
So maybe subconsciously, you wanted Martin Truex Jr. to win Daytona, in the same way you wanted the Royals to win the World Series, or the woman who played Erica on “All My Children” to finally win the daytime Emmy.
Truex Jr. hails from Stafford Township, N.J., and that right there makes him an outsider. He’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan. How many of those do you find in NASCAR?
He drives for a small one-car team, based not in the Charlotte, N.C., area but in Denver. For those keeping a lap chart at home, Furniture Row Racing is the only Sprint Cup entry headquartered west of the Mississippi. The team is a lone wolf among multi-car grizzly bears.
It’s almost impossible for one-car teams to be successful in NASCAR. Furniture Row somehow has managed to do it, first with exiled Kurt Busch as driver a few seasons ago, now with the erstwhile journeyman Martin Truex Jr. behind the wheel.
He benefits from a Canadian crew chief (Cole Pearn) who can really turn the wrenches and, just as vital, from an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, for which reigning series champion Kyle Busch of Las Vegas drives, and for which Hamlin drove at Daytona.
At Daytona, all of the JGR Toyotas were fast. So was the Furniture Row Racing one.
These were Martin Truex’s initial thoughts about being the first loser at the NASCAR Super Bowl:
1. “Damn, that was close.”
2. “Mark Martin, poor guy.”
Mark Martin was the excellent driver/poor guy who lost to Kevin Harvick in what is now the second-closest Daytona 500 ever, in 2007. Truex spoke of that finish, which is commemorated in a mural in the Turn 1 tunnel leading into the infield at Daytona.
“Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, I suppose,” said the 35-year-old Truex after Hamlin edged him at the line.
You could almost hear him sigh.
Truex, the 2004 and 2005 Xfinity Series champion (when it still was called the Busch Series), has three wins and 119 top 10 finishes during more than a decade of fits and starts in Sprint Cup.
He also was the first loser at LVMS in last year’s Kobalt 400.
He made the Chase for the Sprint Cup driving for the little one-car team from Colorado that made its debut in the Busch Series in 2005 with a guy named Jerry Robertson behind the wheel.
Martin Truex Jr. darn near won the Chase.
He made the Final Four, a la Virginia Commonwealth or Butler in college basketball. Then his little team switched to Toyota cars and engines and entered into a new alliance.
Martin Truex Jr. darn near won the Daytona 500, too, and probably drove his way onto a new mural.
It was a tough pill to swallow, but he swallowed it with a smile. He was remarkably upbeat during the postrace inquisition. “Oh, I’m fine,” he told reporters.
It has been said that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and maybe drive-in movies. That was before this year’s Daytona 500.
The kid who grew up in a New Jersey fishing village cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles said he was proud of what he had accomplished, and then he congratulated Denny Hamlin on the win.
He only got introspective once. It was when somebody asked about his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who is battling ovarian cancer and now is in remission.
When he answered the question, you could hear the emotion in his voice, and then Martin Truex Jr. didn’t sound like the first loser at all. Not even close.