Feb. 21, 2016
By Mark McCarter
NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – There is a new sponsor and a bright, glitzy new paint job for Martin Truex Jr., whose 2015 car was black as a funeral suit. Still, two more coats of new paint on the front bumper and Truex is the Daytona 500 champion.
Instead, in a finish he’ll be forced to replay for a lifetime, Truex lost to Denny Hamlin by 0.010 seconds, the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
“I just said, ‘Damn, that was close,’” Truex said, recalling his initial thoughts, when he was just past the finish line and wasn’t yet sure who had won the race.
The gold standard had been — at least since Lee Petty’s controversial photo-finish over Johnny Beauchamp in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 — Kevin Harvick’s 0.020-second margin against Mark Martin in 2007.
“Mark Martin, poor guy,” said poor Martin Truex Jr.
Truex noted that the Harvick-Martin finish is pictured on a mural in the turn 1 tunnel leading to the Daytona infield. He figured he’s bound for the same sort of immortality now.
“Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, I suppose, the rest of my life,” Truex said.
He was barely out of the car before he watched it the first time.
“I just wanted to see how much I got beat by,” Truex said “Honestly, I don’t know that I could have done anything better to have a better chance of winning it.”
If he had a mulligan, it’s that “maybe I should have maybe rubbed (Hamlin) up the track a little harder.”
Ruefully, he added, “You’d rather get beat by a few feet than four inches, absolutely.”
Truex spent countless laps on Hamlin’s bumper in the middle third of the race, but it was Matt Kenseth who owned the lead after a restart with 12 to go, and Truex hooked up behind him. But when Hamlin built up a head of steam on the outside, Kenseth went high to block with a quarter of a lap to go. The sudden move caused Kenseth to get loose and free Hamlin for the sprint to the finish.
Truex is what Kenseth called “an adopted teammate,” with owner Barney Visser’s Furniture Row Racing team moving from Chevrolet to Toyota and affiliating with Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields the cars of Hamlin, Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.
“For them to welcome us in as a group into their way of racing, part of their team, that quickly, and trust us was a huge deal,” Truex said.
“You’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit,” Gibbs said.
The vision of the narrow loss may never fade, but the agony is short-lived.
“I’m fine,” Truex said. “I’m proud of what we did. … It’s my best finish ever in this race. Probably one of the strongest runs I’ve ever had at a restrictor plate track throughout the entire day. It was a big day for us for a lot of reasons.”
Truex, one of the four finalists in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup, didn’t see something slip away nearly as much as he saw something building.
“I realize the position I’m in, the opportunities I’m going to have this year,” he said. “I’m going to have a lot more opportunities to win races. I feel like we did everything right today to put ourselves in position to win.”
Everything except put enough paint on the front bumper.