LOUDON, N.H. — Martin Truex Jr. felt a bit uneasy as he settled into a seat in the NASCAR hauler where officials summon drivers accused of rules infractions, bruised from fistfights or found guilty of general poor decorum.
“Anyone feel like they’re in trouble for being here?” he asked.
The setting was a bit unfamiliar for one of NASCAR’s more popular drivers around the garage, but he was here for a chat not because he was in trouble. With a smile, Truex insisted he’s been a stock car model citizen through 396 career races where not one has ended with him being called to the sport’s version of the principal’s office.
“It’s a good record,” he said, laughing.
But Truex — or at least his teams through the years — have been unable to completely steer clear of NASCAR violations. Truex’s win Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase opener came under scrutiny when the No. 78 Toyota failed the post-race laser inspection. His car was tagged with infractions that should have drawn a 10-point penalty. Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet failed the same inspection and was subject to the same penalty — until NASCAR decided not to punish the drivers.
Free from any penalty, Truex said he hoped he could escape the accusation the Furniture Row Racing team had cheated its way to victory lane.
“You don’t want people to think you’re winning races by what they call ‘cheating,'” he said Friday. “You have people on social media and they get upset about it. It was such a little thing. It so easily could have went the other way. It’s frustrating that it kind of taints your win a little bit.”
Truex would have kept his win and advanced to the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship even if NASCAR decided to levy a points fine. NASCAR did make one change for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — all 16 Chase cars will go through laser inspection after only nine were picked after the Chase opener. The laser inspection station takes a precise look — down to about 1/1000th of an inch — to find any potential violation.
Carl Edwards, a fellow Chase driver, backed NASCAR’s decision to reverse course on a points penalty for the drivers.
“They police this sport the way that we have asked them to police it,” he said.
Still, the first Chase race was marred by inspection talk instead of who’s hot/who’s not as NASCAR’s version of the playoffs heats up.
“Going forward, I think everybody realizes we don’t need to be talking about that after a great race,” Truex said. “I just feel like it puts a black eye on the sport and on the teams.”
Truex knows about as well as any driver the nasty effects of the fallout that comes from a cheating scandal. He was booted from the Chase in 2013 and lost his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing when the team tried to manipulate the outcome of a race.
What was his professional rock bottom turned into the ride of a lifetime when he landed with the single-car team at Furniture Row. Truex was one of four drivers to race for the championship last season and he has four wins over the last two seasons after winning just twice in almost a decade with other teams.
Buoyed by FRR’s affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota, Truex has again stamped himself a championship contender.
“We get everything that Gibbs gets,” Truex said. “At MWR, we got the same (information) from Toyota that Gibbs got, but we got nothing from Gibbs at all. It was two separate teams.”
Truex’s career has skyrocketed while former MWR teammate Clint Bowyer has suffered through the worst season of his career as part of a one-year stopgap deal with HScott Motorsports.
The friends went on a fishing trip in early August where Bowyer bemoaned how much his 2016 “sucked.” Truex used his own career as a potential path for what could be ahead next season when Bowyer moves to the retiring Tony Stewart’s ride at Stewart-Haas Racing: The career rebirth could be as simple as a new team logo on the firesuit.
Truex also said he made peace with Kevin Harvick following a post-race accusation that the SHR driver intentionally hit him at Chicagoland.
“We agreed it was a racing deal and we moved forward,” he said. “I was mad at him and I didn’t know he was mad, also. I guess he thought that I ran into him.”
With a whopping 1,266 laps led, Truex has few opportunities these days to bump a car out of his way.