Ryan Truex just crossed the bridge to enter Dover Motor Speedway, and he already has goosebumps. It‘s a place where he would visit annually with family and friends, as he grew up just over two hours away on the New Jersey coast.
Truex remembers cheering on his brother Martin Truex Jr. when he won at Dover for Chance 2 Motorsports in 2004. He was sitting in the grandstands and the end of the frontstretch. He used to enjoy sitting high in the stands in Turn 2, having a good vantage point of the entire track.
Dover is also a track that Truex has been close to winning at in the past, including coming up six laps short of having a breakthrough performance in 2012, just 10 days after having appendix surgery. He was cleared to race at the last minute. Had he won on that June afternoon with Joe Gibbs Racing, it‘s possible his whole racing career could have panned out differently.
“It‘s hard to know either way,” Truex told Jayski.com on Saturday morning, a mere hour-and-a-half before the green flag to the Xfinity Series race. “It‘s hypothetical. I feel like winning a race with all the Cup guys that were in the field back then — the field in general was stacked. I was 20 years old. To sit on the pole, lead laps and almost win it, I feel like it is a big deal for someone my age and my experience level compared to the experience level of everybody else in the field. It‘s hard to say what would have changed.”
Back then, it was a challenge for Truex to find significant funding. Fast forward nearly 11 years later and he still faces that same struggle. It serves as the reason why he missed out on a full-time ride at JR Motorsports for the 2013 season and he‘s since run partial schedules in seven Xfinity Series seasons, two Cup Series seasons and five Craftsman Truck Series seasons. His only full-time efforts were in 2017 with Hattori Racing Enterprises, 2018 with Kaulig Racing and 2021 with Niece Motorsports.
It had been a struggle.
But for the second consecutive season, Truex landed on his feet for a six-race schedule in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023. With solid outings but disappointing finishes last season, he had a load of confidence entering his second season working with crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Martin, now driver of the No. 19 Toyota in the Cup Series, pushes hard for the 31-year-old to get opportunities with JGR.
“It‘s just good to be back with the same crew chief, same guys on the team,” Truex said. “Last year, we had a little bit of growing pains of just me and Jason getting on the same page and me getting used to these cars again. JGR has been strong this year. But for me coming back with the same team, even though I was out of the seat for eight months, it felt a lot easier going to Phoenix the second time around.
The only difference from 2022 was the car number. Now driving JGR‘s all-star No. 19 Toyota, Truex had speed out of the gate in his first start at Phoenix. Had there been a handful more laps in the race, it‘s very possible he would have chased down eventual race winner and teammate Sammy Smith.
Instead, Truex settled for second.
“It‘s tough, but it gives me confidence that I was able to show up eight months out of the car,” Truex said on finishing runner-up for the third time in his Xfinity career. “We were [fifth] in practice, but P1 in every average. That was my first race since Atlanta last year and I didn‘t race anything in between that aside from being on the simulator a lot.
“To have that much speed, for me, was a confidence boost. It reminded me that I could get it done and I belong here.”
The following week, he avoided chaos and placed third at Atlanta. He had two races off before returning to Martinsville, where the team was admittedly disappointed with the car‘s performance. Truex overdrove the car in qualifying and it took the majority of the race to get track position. He managed a 12th-place effort.
At Talladega, he finished 13th though paced the field for nine laps, which at the time was the second most laps he‘d ever led in an Xfinity race.
“They‘ve gone well,” Truex said of his first quartet of races. “Martinsville was tough. Didn‘t qualify like I needed to and struggled for track position the whole race. Aside from that, the first two went well. Talladega went really well and I thought we had a car capable of winning, led laps and ran up front the whole race.”
The No. 19 car took the checkered flag in 17th at Talladega, but was excited for his next opportunity: Dover.
With qualifying getting canceled, Truex lined up 12th for the race. He wasted no time getting to the front, grabbing the race lead on lap 34 en route to his first career stage victory. The No. 19 car controlled the second stage to claim another playoff point towards the owner‘s championship.
In a caution-free final 94 laps, Truex cycled to the lead with 11 laps remaining and didn‘t look back. He finally won his first NASCAR national touring race in his 188th career start — 89 of those coming in the Xfinity Series.
“Finally people can stop asking me about 2012 here, now that I came back, led all the laps that I did, won both stages and won the race,” Truex said after the win. “Really good car, that‘s the main thing. Executed all day and it made my job pretty easy.”
Martin was watching the 200-mile race intensely from his motorhome. With 40 laps remaining, he began sweating profusely. Thinking something would go awry, he wasn‘t going to get ready to visit his brother in Victory Lane until the white flag flew, thinking he would jinx it.
Martin‘s name holds a lot of weight in the sport as a Cup and multiple time Xfinity Series champion, Ryan stated Saturday morning. Martin has also watched firsthand how his brother has navigated his way through the sport despite being let down on numerous occasions.
“[Ryan has worked] unbelievably hard at it to try and find sponsors, working out, working with the teams, doing sim work for JGR, doing stuff for Toyota,” an emotional Martin said of Ryan‘s journey. “Anytime someone wants him to do something or relies on him to do something, he will do it and he will give it 110% effort. Really proud of him for sticking with it.
“It‘s been a lot of days where he‘s like, ‘I don‘t know if this is going to work out.‘ He‘s had a lot of uphill battles and a lot of things working against him over the years.”
Ratcliff believes the win can go a long way, as he‘s had fun working with Ryan for 11 races since the start of the 2022 season.
“I always watched Ryan and thought he was an extremely talented driver,” Ratcliff said in Victory Lane after doing the incalculable hat dance. “If he could get in the right place at the right time, I knew that he was capable of getting it done.
“I told him after [Martinsville], ‘You‘ve got a few more. We‘re going to get one.‘ I believed in him and this is one of his favorite tracks. Not that we don‘t work hard on every racecar, but we put a lot of emphasis on this one for him, knowing that it‘s one he had marked on his calendar. He lived up to it today.”
Ryan is also close friends with Parker Kligerman, who earned a full-time ride with Big Machine Racing after winning the Truck Series race at Mid-Ohio last summer. He‘s seen that if a driver‘s stock is high at the right time, there‘s still opportunities to get rides without bringing a plethora of funding to the table to back him.
Kligerman‘s recent success gives Truex hope, though the victory doesn‘t guarantee him a similar circumstance.
The timing of Ryan‘s win could also be beneficial towards the rest of the 2023 season and heading into 2024. He admitted to there being opportunities on the horizon, but his main focus is trying to build with JGR. His second go around with the organization has lived up to its credence.
“My goal is to stay with JGR and work on racing full time for them and to stay in the Toyota camp,” Truex said, as he does an abundance of simulator work for the manufacturer. “I feel like this is the right home for me and I fit in well. My number one goal is to figure out how to run full time for these guys and go run for a championship next year.”
Ratcliff, who has worked with 12 different drivers in the last 43 Xfinity races, would like to see Ryan return to the organization next year with a bigger role. But he‘s going to leave those decisions to someone above his pay grade.
“I‘m hoping this sets the pace for his career in the future,” Ratcliff said. He‘s an excellent racecar driver and capable of winning races. I think if he could get in a position where he could run a full season with someone, he would no doubt be a contender for the championship.
“It would be great if we could put a car together for him. If we can, then I‘m going to enjoy doing that.”
After Martin won a Monday matinee in the Cup Series race at Dover, team owner Joe Gibbs said he‘s working diligently at trying to get Ryan more seat time in the Xfinity Series.
“We would love to have Ryan in the car,” Gibbs stated. “He does a lot of simulation work for us. He’s a dedicated young guy, and as everybody knows, it’s hard to get sponsorship. We work our rear off.
“I talked to Todd Moore (president, MTJ Group of Companies). He called me right after the race on Saturday, and we committed to work hard this year to try and get Ryan in more races.”
Not looking too far ahead, Truex‘s final scheduled race in the No. 19 Toyota is next weekend at Darlington, where he thought he had one of the best two cars in last year‘s race, despite having to start the race at the rear of the field.