Shortly after losing last year’s Daytona 500 by one-hundredth of a second, Martin Truex Jr. shrugged his shoulders and drew a heavy sigh before the words slowly exhaled with his breath.
“Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, rest of my life,’’ he said with a forced smile.
As the calendar returns to February and “The Great American Race” approaches, Truex knows those final moments against Denny Hamlin will be shown more often, and he repeatedly will be asked about the closest finish in the race’s history.
“I don’t dread it yet,’’ Truex told NBC Sports during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour. “I don’t mind seeing (video of the finish). I think even for me it was exciting. It was a cool moment to be a part of it.
“I really wish I was the other side of that moment but still a cool thing to be a part of. I feel like someday I’m going to win that race, so seeing that is kind of just a reminder of how close we’ve been, how close we are and (how) one little different decision there, or one slight change of that last part of the straightaway, or that half of the straightaway, and it could have changed the outcome into something that you won’t forget.’’
It was unforgettable, just not in the celebratory fashion for Truex or Matt Kenseth, who led 40 3/4 of the final 41 laps. Kenseth led until he darted from the bottom lane in Turn 3 to block a charging Hamlin.
When Kenseth moved up the track, Hamlin cut down and squeezed between Truex and Kenseth. Hamlin and Kenseth made slight contact, sending Kenseth off pace and toward the wall. Truex crowded Hamlin and briefly led coming to the line before Hamlin nipped him by the nose of his car.
“I’ll be honest with you,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports, “I still YouTube the last five laps of the Daytona 500. I’ve watched it back a few times, even from different guys’ in-car cameras to see what exactly caused that last lap to be so magical for us. For us to go from fourth or fifth to the lead in one lap was definitely the best lap I’ve ever driven.’’
That final lap symbolized Truex’s greatest season in Cup — a strong run that had an incomplete finish.
He won four races (he had won three in his first 10 seasons). Among his victories was the record-setting performance in the Coca-Cola 600 where he led all but eight of the 400 laps. No driver in NASCAR history has led so much in a single race.
Truex opened the playoffs by winning at Chicagoland. To further mark himself as a favorite, he won at Dover, the final race in the opening round.
But then his season unraveled. Truex finished 13th at Charlotte in the opening race of the second round. A clutch issue on the final pit stop ruined what likely could have been a top-five finish.
A fueling issue the next week at Kansas caused him to pit early, and the yellow came out while he was on pit road, dropping him to 20th. That altered his team’s strategy the rest of the race, and he finished 11th.
Truex’s title hopes ended the next week at Talladega Superspeedway when the pole-sitter’s engine blew and he finished 40th. Suddenly, a driver many expected to compete for the championship in Miami was out of contention.
“We’re definitely not over it,’’ Truex told NBC Sports about last year’s playoff woes. “I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s motivation. It keeps us hungry.
“The biggest thing we learned is there’s no room for error. Talladega was tough to have that happen out of the blue. It was a huge shocker, but it was a reminder that you need to attack. Kansas and Charlotte, two of our best race tracks and we didn’t perform as well as we should have. It’s just a reminder that you have to be on every single week and there’s no room for not getting the job done.’’
But after his strongest two seasons (five wins, 16 top fives and 39 top 10s in 72 starts), Truex knows he and his team will have to be better to have a chance at an elusive title. He’ll have help this year with the team expanding to two cars and adding rookie Erik Jones.
“We performed at a high level, so that isn’t really the question,’’ Truex said. “I guess more than anything, how do we perform at that high level again is probably more difficult.’’
The task will begin later this month back at Daytona.