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Martin Truex Jr. didn’t have much to lose Sunday at the Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
His seventh-place finish on Charlotte’s 2.3-mile combo road course-oval might not have been what he wanted, but it was the kind of performance that keeps him in the forefront of the championship conversation.
Thanks to victories in the first two races of the playoffs, Truex arrived in Charlotte knowing he had already qualified for the second round of the postseason. On top of that, he had won three of the previous six road races on the circuit, dating to Watkins Glen in 2017 and Sonoma in ‘18 and this season.
But he also had memories of last season’s Roval, when, while leading on the last lap, he was wrecked by Jimmie Johnson, paving the way for Ryan Blaney to win.
“I think we’re feeling good, you know,” Truex said earlier in the week. “The funny thing about our sport is every weekend is such a different challenge. You look at the last two weeks, nothing we really did prepares you for the Roval. We get a lot of curveballs thrown at us in this sport and that’s what makes it fun, that’s what it makes it a huge challenge, but as far as the team goes, I feel good about things and everybody is clicking. Everybody is working hard and looking for more all the time. I think our approach is good, and we’ll just continue to take these things one at a time and do the best that we can do with it.”
Truex grew up racing near his hometown of Mayetta, New Jersey. That’s where he got his early taste of road-course racing.
“Actually, the first go-kart racing I did was all on road courses, so that was a little bit of it — kind of getting that mentality and just kind of getting what it takes to do that in your brain,” Truex said. “Growing up, racing modifieds, we didn’t do road courses, but in the Busch North Series, we did. My first year of racing stock cars, there were a few road courses mixed in there. Then, of course, moving up to Xfinity, we won in Mexico, we raced Watkins Glen.
“I’ve had enough of it throughout my past I think to understand it and to figure out the things that I was good at and the things I needed to work on. Going back each and every year, I just tried to continue to pick those things apart.”
As Truex prepared for Charlotte’s Roval, he had to take into account the reconfigured backstretch chicane, which was widened from 32 to 54 feet after last season’s inaugural race.
“So far, I think it’s a good change,” Truex said Friday. “I like that it’s an actual braking zone and you slow down and you make a turn left, turn right, got to get the power down to leave there. It’s a lot more technical than what it was. Last year, it was just like a Hail Mary every time you went through there because really last year, all you would do is slow down just enough to get to third gear and you were right back in the throttle through that thing. It was pretty hairy.”
The new chicane, as it turned out, would bite Truex on Sunday.
After qualifying eighth Friday, Truex missed a shift during Saturday’s final practice, forcing him to change engines. That meant he had to start from the rear of the field.
Truex quickly compounded his problems from Saturday, missing the backstretch chicane on the first lap of the race. It happened again on Lap 8. He had to serve two stop-and-go penalties, which kept him buried in the field.
“I just wheel-hopped guys, sorry,” Truex said on his radio to crew chief Cole Pearn.
But Truex stuck with it, moving steadily up and was in second place at one point.
“It was up-and-down for sure, you know?” Truex said of starting last and finishing seventh. “To start from the back like that and get penalized in the beginning for avoiding a wreck, missing the chicane to avoid a wreck and you penalize us is kind of stupid. We started from way behind there and made our way up.”
Next up: Dover and round two.
“Oh yeah, I’m ready,” Truex said.