KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Before the checkered flag flew on Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway, Martin Truex Jr. was apologizing to his team for his second-place finish. Truex had dominated the race, leading four times for 173 laps before being passed by Denny Hamlin for the lead with 31 laps to go.
There was a time, oh, say, any other season in the team's six-year existence, where a second-place finish at Michael Waltrip Racing would be seen as growth, a sign of potential things to come. On Sunday, it was a vindication of Truex and MWR's performance in the season's first eight races. But it was also disappointing.
"I felt like today was kind of a day where I thought I was back and felt really strong that we'd have a car that could contend for the win going into the race," Truex said. "And then to be able to do that all day long, it was a good feeling.
"You know, as disappointed as I am with this second place, this is a big day for us as a team. It's kind of a statement for us that we're here for the long haul; we're here for the rest of the season. This isn't — we're not just a flash in the pan."
Last week at Texas, Truex led 69 laps on the way to a sixth-place finish. At Kansas, he led more laps in one race than he had in all of 2011 en route to his third top five- and sixth top-10 finish of the season and is now just 15 points behind points leader Greg Biffle. Last year, he had three top fives and 12 top 10s in 36 races.
On Sunday, Truex carried the MWR banner, as teammates Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer suffered valve train issues that led to engine failures. Truex credits the addition of crew chief Chad Johnston, who ascended to the role during the 2011 season, and MWR vice president of competition Scott Miller, formerly of Richard Childress Racing, as key reasons for the team's performance.
"[Miller] came on at a time when we were changing the way we build our cars and did our program," Truex said. "That was a really good thing for us. He came in and streamlined the process, made sure it was consistent, made sure we were getting everything out of the people on the floor building the race cars and things. Scott has been a lot of fun to work with. He was my crew chief when Chad was suspended for a few races last year and really got to know him well. He got a really, really good inside look at our cars and what we were battling with and what we needed to do better with, and as bad as it was to have Chad get suspended and all that stuff, it was a really good opportunity for Scott to really take a good look at the whole program and be a part of the program and say, okay, these are the things that I need to do this winter."
Despite Sunday's engine failures, the No. 55 and Bowyer's 15 aren't too far behind Truex in the standings. Bowyer sits 11th, while the No. 55, driven by Mark Martin in six races and Brian Vickers in two, is 11th in the owner's points standings. (Remember, all three cars finished in the top five at Bristol). Through the first quarter of the season, there's no ignoring Michael Waltrip Racing.
"To sit here and be disappointed with second place is saying something for us," Truex said. "Just looking forward to coming back to the racetrack next week. I really enjoy working with this team. They're doing a phenomenal job. I can't even tell you how much fun we're having to be honest. Once I get over the defeat in a few hours, I'm going to look at all the positives, and there's a lot of positives we can take out of this weekend and so far this season. We're not near as good as we can be yet, and we're going to keep pushing forward and try to keep getting better. I know our wins are going to come soon."
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