SPARTA, Ky. -- Oddly enough, Martin Truex Jr. might have won last weekend because he wasn't supposed to. On a road course, there was zero pressure on a former modified driver who these days is at his best on big, fast intermediate layouts.
"Last week, it was just so easy. It was so smooth," said Truex, whose victory at Sonoma Raceway snapped a 218-race winless skid that dated back more than six years. "It was our time."
Now, though, the expectations return, and not just because the Michael Waltrip Racing driver is the most recent winner in the Sprint Cup Series. Truex is historically at his best on intermediate tracks like 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, where NASCAR's premier circuit competes Saturday night. And it's difficult to ignore the lineup of tri-ovals awaiting this fall in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, should Truex qualify for the playoff.
He certainly improved his chances last Sunday, with a victory that not only gave him a boost in the Wild Card standings, but also lifted him into the top 10 in points. But looking at where Truex is strongest -- so far this year, he has an average finish of 7.3 on intermediate tracks of 1.5 or 2 miles -- and looking at a Chase schedule dominated by those kinds of tracks, it's easy for him to think that his No. 56 team may be capable of something much bigger than a single, drought-busting victory.
"We do, absolutely, but I think that there's still so much to learn with this new car. So many things still about this car are changing. The stuff we ran earlier in the year at Vegas, California -- it's not even close now," Truex said Friday, referring to the Generation-6 car that debuted this season.
"So yes and no. Yes, because we've typically been good at those race tracks. But at the same time, we need to keep evolving our stuff, keep working on our cars. We've got a new chassis the team's been working on that hopefully we'll have ready to race here in a few weeks. So we need to keep making sure we get better. But as far as our team ? mile and a halfs are definitely our best race tracks. Definitely the Chase schedule is one that fits us, if we can have our performance where it needs to be when that time comes."
It's somewhat strange that Truex's two career victories at NASCAR's top level have come on a road course and a high-banked oval, given how good he can be on intermediates. He's had some dominant efforts, like the 173 laps he led at Kansas last spring, or the 142 he paced at Texas earlier this year. There's something about intermediates that just clicks with Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston, even though both of them came up racing on short tracks.
"I think Chad really understands what it takes to make cars run fast on these race tracks," Truex said. "I really enjoy them. I understand I think what it takes to go fast on them as well. But I think at the end of the day you're only as good as the car you're sitting in, and Chad has done really, really a good job of giving me the stuff I need to run fast at those places."
Kentucky, though, presents a challenge that makes it stand apart from most other intermediates on the schedule, almost all of which have been resurfaced in recent years. Not the 1.5-miler in the Bluegrass State, which features a bumpy pavement that can make it very difficult for teams to keep their cars low to the ground to make speed. Perhaps that's why Truex -- who's finished 18th and eighth in the first two Sprint Cup events here -- doesn't feel Kentucky is one of his stronger intermediate tracks.
"It's so rough," he said. "It's so difficult with these cars to get them working. ? The splitter is very close to the ground on these cars. We get about two-and-a-half inches, I think, of splitter height. These cars are very sensitive to aero. It's very important to keep that splitter on the race track to make the cars turn, get that downforce to make grip. So you're trying to keep the splitter close to the ground, and then you're driving across bumps that feel like they're three feet tall. It's a heck of a challenge. It's very, very difficult, very hard on the crew chiefs."
And yet, Truex isn't exactly a road-course specialist, either, and look what happened last week. That long-awaited second career victory at last in his hip pocket, Truex expects to be able to race with less pressure, something that clearly paid dividends at Sonoma. Now he'll try to take the same approach on intermediate tracks like Kentucky that better fit his style, and where he's more often been a threat to win.
"We've been close before. We've led a lot of laps, dominated races, and not won. Those are the things that really get you mad," he said. "I think that, for us, we'll definitely race with less pressure as a team, and I think it will come to us a little bit easier. But at the same time, you've got to work hard. Nobody's going to give you anything out here. ? We enjoyed that one, and we're going to work hard to try to get more, but there are no guarantees, that's for sure."
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