- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2021

In most sports, an athlete hitting his or her 40s means the end is fast approaching — if not already in the rearview mirror. 

But in racing, a driver is often hitting his prime at that age. Just ask Martin Truex Jr.

“I feel like the best I’ve ever been,” the NASCAR veteran said. “Experience is a big part of that.” 

He may not be exaggerating. Over the weekend, Truex won the F Cup Series race in Richmond — earning an automatic bid to the next round of the NASCAR Playoffs. The 41-year-old’s win also marked his third victory in Richmond in the last five races. But Truex’s success has extended far beyond the Commonwealth. He ranks second in points in the NASCAR standings.

On the year, Truex now has four wins — the Cup Series’ second behind only Kyle Larson.

Truex started to hit his stride a few years ago. In 2017, he won his first Cup Series championship — 14 years into his Cup Series career. Since then, the New Jersey native has regularly placed within the top 10, finishing second in each of the next two years and seventh in 2020. 

“You’re not always looking over your shoulder, (wondering) who’s looking to take my job (or) how long am I going to be able to do this,” Truex told The Washington Times last month. “All those things you kind of deal with time and experience. They kind of just fade away.

“For me, it’s a lot more fun to go to the race track. The only pressure I ever feel, honestly, is from my team and myself of wanting to be successful. It’s a fun way to race.”

Truex said over the last five or six years, he’s become “very comfortable” with where he’s at professionally. Success, he admits, helps that. Winning consistently caused people to look at him differently, he said. And in turn, he started to feel better because he was upholding his end. “As long as you stay successful, everything kind of keeps rolling,” he said. 

Truex isn’t an anomaly in that regard. Drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt regularly finished in the top 10 during their 40s — and Earnhardt even won the Daytona 500 for the first time at age 46. Jimmie Johnson was 41 when he won his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in 2016 and raced for another four years after that.

What makes Truex’s current run stand out, however, is that the driver is still as sharp — even with practically no practice time. The pandemic has forced drivers to adjust, making it so that drivers go the majority of races without any on-track, pre-race sessions in an attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus. 

Truex, too, started working with a new crew chief just last year in James Small. Small was promoted to the lead role after Cole Pearn stepped away from the sport to move back to Canada. The switch means Truex had to adjust on the fly, without the usual test runs.

But Truex credits Small for maintaining the team’s consistency when the change happened. He said the approach between Pearn and Small are “really similar” because they worked closely together and have similar backgrounds. He called Small’s promotion a natural choice. 

Now, Truex will look to secure his second Cup Series championship. To do that, he’ll have to continue to drive well — starting this upcoming weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway in Connecticut. 

NASCAR is still in the first leg of its playoffs. After Bristol, the racing league will cut down from 16 drivers to 12, race three races before cutting down to eight and then hold another three races before narrowing down to the final four in Phoenix. 

The final will be held Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway. Truex, obviously, wants to be there. 

“I’m having fun,” Truex said. “I’m feeling like we can win anywhere and everywhere. That’s a good feeling to have going into the race track every weekend.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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