Martin Truex Jr. on even keel ahead of Cup title finale

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It’s one thing to be part of drama. It’s another to create it.

Martin Truex Jr. tries not to do the latter.

Entering Sunday’s Cup championship race at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium) – the last, most pressure-packed race of the season – that focus has continued.

“It’s mind over matter,” he said Thursday during Media Day in Phoenix. “I get mad, too. Trust me, I get real mad a lot of times and … You got to learn how to control it. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

“I’m pretty good at handling my emotions. Probably sometimes, I just stuff them down inside and they take a while to come out and I just bury them. But for the most part, I’m pretty good at controlling myself.”

It’s a striking contrast to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and fellow Championship 4 driver Denny Hamlin, who is defiant coming off his post-race controversies last week at Martinsville Speedway.

Hamlin is looking to finally claim his first Cup title Sunday. The other Championship 4 drivers, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, have their own goals. Elliott wants to defend his title from a year ago, while Larson wants to deliver the final blow after a dominant nine-win season.

That leaves Truex and the No. 19 team, who largely had a quiet summer after claiming three wins in the spring, including a March win at Phoenix.

They picked up a fourth victory early in the playoffs at Richmond, but had to survive two tense elimination races at the Charlotte Roval (finished 29th after a late incident) and Martinsville (finished fourth) to reach the Championship 4. They earned the last spot in the title race by just three points.

It all gives the No. 19 team an “under the radar” feel. Truex’s crew chief, James Small, doesn’t mind.

“I think that’s how we kind of always fly – everybody usually forgets about us, and then we’ll be there (laughs),” Small said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I feel like there’s more pressure on the other guys, really.”

But as Truex himself noted later, under the radar does not mean underdog. Or any similar euphemism.

“I don’t see how we’re the dark horse by any means, but I feel great about our opportunity,” Truex said. “And winning here in the spring, and 750 (horsepower) tracks have been where we’ve been strong this year, so here we are.”

“… Being here in Phoenix, I don’t agree with that (assessment). I think this is our kind of racetrack.”

All of Truex’s wins in 2021 have come with the 750 rules package that will be used Sunday. Regarding the March win at Phoenix, Truex said it came with the best car he had ever driven at the one-mile oval.

There will be many differences between then and Sunday, however. The weather will be hotter. The track will be treated with resin.

And perhaps most important, there will be practice and qualifying sessions leading into the race.

Truex believes that having practice in particular will “play a factor” in who ultimately claims the Bill France Cup.

“I don’t know that – if you could have a crystal ball that you’d say the practice is going to change who wins the race,” Truex said. “I don’t know if you could say that. But I think it’s going to change it up. I think it’s going to make it more competitive. I do feel like that.

“I feel like it really removes the opportunity for somebody to just completely step on their own toes and really make a mistake or a bad decision that hurts them. … I honestly think it’s a more fair competition for four guys to all have practice and go out there and lay it on the line and see who can do the best job.”

Qualifying is a different subject. Elliott won last year’s title finale despite starting from the rear due to his car failing pre-race inspection twice.

With that mentioned, Truex conceded he didn’t know if qualifying truly mattered this weekend. But he felt it can still be important psychologically for his team.

“I think more than anything, it’s just to kick the weekend off right,” he said. “It’s kind of like a warning shot, like we have the best car. It’s kind of like a confidence thing. You want to win everything, right, as a team. You want to win practice. You want to win qualifying. You want to win a race on any given weekend.

“But this weekend, it’s bigger than normal, and it’s kind of like that first shot of like, ‘Okay, we’re the best car, we’ve laid down the gauntlet; what are you going to do about it?’ So that part of it’s fun. Does it really matter? Probably not. But it’s fun to be able to do that.”

All fun. No drama. And a championship celebration at the end.

That’s the goal for Truex and his team this weekend.