The supposed beauty of road course racing is that driver input fuels performance, potentially more so than on ovals. But if it’s indeed true, it’s difficult to explain how the Toyota Camry of Martin Truex Jr. looked following last Tuesday’s Busch Clash in Daytona.
A wall-walloped left quarter panel, a nose caked in mud and a punched-in hood were sights unbecoming of the skill Truex showcased in a sprint race. He amassed the night’s best pass differential (+28) while driving from the back to the front twice before crashing out of the lead and registering a last-place finish.
Truex is a four-time Cup Series road race winner, a peculiar notion given his racing roots in the Modified-crazed Northeast. He’s often coy about his ability, attributing it to repetitions over time. But Chase Elliott’s recent string of success overshadows the idea that the 40-year-old driver is something of a road course virtuoso. It’s an attribute that should play well in a NASCAR season with seven point-paying road races on the schedule, the first of which comes this weekend on the same Daytona road course that hosted the Clash.
Just one road course win over the last two years (Sonoma 2019) belies his all-around excellence. During that span, no full-time driver secured a better surplus passing value — the difference in a driver’s adjusted pass efficiency and the expected adjusted pass efficiency of a driver with the same average running position, based on a field-wide slope. His +13.35% SPV netted a pass differential 96 positions better than the statistical expectation, fashioning him into a valuable weapon wielded by Joe Gibbs Racing that finished no worse than seventh across his last five starts.
Last season, his 88.89% position retention rate on restarts tied as the best in the Cup Series (with William Byron), proving he’s a steady hand inside the two-lap windows during which drivers find their track position most vulnerable.
A peek at his telemetry insists he’s an efficient user of the brakes, which in turn, affects tire wear and allows for a nimbleness in corners, setting up passes. It’s believed the natural road courses with dramatic elevation change like Sonoma and Watkins Glen better suit his ability — he’s yet to win on a relatively flat stadium road course like Daytona or the Charlotte Roval — but he’s of the mind that his strengths are universal.
“I feel like I’m just as good at Watkins Glen as I am at Sonoma, and they are completely different,” Truex said. “I think a general road course set of skills will translate to other road courses. They all have a little bit of unique tendencies when it comes to grip and asphalt, elevation changes, the way the curbs are, things like that, that can play into your strengths or weaknesses.”
“For me, it’s understanding what it takes to make speed on a road course. It’s understanding what it takes to make a heavy stock car, without a lot of grip and a lot of horsepower, make the most time on those road courses.”
Making speed on road courses hasn’t been a problem for Truex and likely won’t provide him one Sunday. With no prior practice, his car ranked as the second fastest in Central Speed — a compilation of speed-per-quarter averages while omitting crash damage and other aberrations — in last year’s Daytona road course race. He had the fastest car in Sonoma in 2019 and the second fastest in Watkins Glen.
“It’s really about being able to hold the car on the limit and not make mistakes because you talk about road courses having 10, 12, 14 corners, one little mistake — overdrive one corner — you screw up your whole lap.
“A lot of it is really about discipline and understanding where the limit is and not making mistakes.”
Truex’s most obvious flaw in last Tuesday night’s Clash was driving past the chicane while under caution, a clear misunderstanding of the caution-lap protocol set by NASCAR, explained during the pre-race driver’s meeting. He was penalized, sent to the rear of the field on the ensuing restart, and while his journey back through the field ultimately voided the mistake, it’s a maneuver that’d be costly in a regular-season race awarding stage points.
Being the sideshow, for reasons good and bad, is ultimately not what he’d prefer in a year where the schedule appears tailor-made for the best parts of his driving acumen. There’s better work to do, and despite his spreadsheet stardom on road courses, he enters this weekend’s race as the second-best driver based on reputation.
Elliott, whose run of four consecutive road course wins is two shy of the banner mark set by Hendrick Motorsports predecessor Jeff Gordon, sparked attempts at improvement from others. Truex, for one, has taken to scouting the reigning champion’s road course habits through available data and analytics.
“These days with SMT (a data visualization software) and all of the data we get, you can see exactly what (Elliott’s team is) doing on the track,” Truex said. “You can’t really see how they make it happen, but you can definitely learn from watching it. Any time you are getting beat, you are looking to see what someone is doing. It doesn’t matter if they’ve won 100 races or one race. If you are getting beat these days, you are looking how they did it and how they beat you.
“If you look at what (Elliott) was able to do — having pressure on the last 10 or 15 laps of the race and not making that mistake — that’s what it takes, lap after lap. They’ve really got a hold on the Roval track, where it seems like they are a lot faster than everybody else. They’ve got it going on with their setups. They’ve got their cars figured out to drive the way he likes them, and he does an incredible job of driving them.”
Elliott indeed represents a daunting challenge for others on the road courses, but Truex appears best suited to take down NASCAR’s current king of the road. After all, even in a Clash race in which he finished last, Truex arguably provided the most entertainment from flag to flag — a tell good as any regarding his talent, but an end result he’d soon prefer to change.