Less than a week remains before the second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event of the summer at Pocono Raceway, and Martin Truex Jr. is trying to re-create his success from years earlier in the northeastern Pennsylvania mountains.
In 2017, he reached racing’s peak when he won the NASCAR Cup Series, a title that Truex thinks in part to be the result of his 2015 victory at Pocono, whose challenging design prepares drivers for the most difficult aspects of other Cup Series tracks.
“It’s always a good feeling when you can go there, be fast, and win, because you know that it transfers to a lot of different racetracks,” he said. "Some places you can go, you don’t need a lot of horsepower, you probably don’t need the most down force. There are certain tracks that require different things, and Pocono – if you have that weakness – will exploit that.”
The raceway’s unique triangular layout with three distinctly shaped corners is notoriously difficult to maneuver. As the winner at Pocono again in 2018, Truex counts himself among those drivers who know that extra and specific preparation are necessary to conquer its unusual challenges.
“I think that every aspect of your program has to be top-notch to be able to win at Pocono," he said. “Three completely different corners, so you kind of need a car that can make it work in all three. I feel like most seasons, guys that are really fast generally run good at Pocono because it takes so many different aspects of the car."
Just as responsible for the racing prowess of Truex’s No. 19 car is his crew chief, Cole Pearn, who became the first Canadian crew chief to win a Cup Series race when he helped lead the pair to victory at Pocono in 2015. Unlike Truex, who was around the raceway from a young age, Pearn grew up racing in Canada, but he has his own ties to the track.
“My mother-in-law and father-in-law actually had their honeymoon there back in the day,” he said. “For people from Ontario, it’s not that far.”
Even if Pocono’s intricacies make it one of the more demanding tracks on the racing circuit, Truex knows the place better than most. Having grown up mere hours away in Mayetta, N.J., he remembers his first visits to Pocono when he was as young as 5 years old. Both his father and uncle competed in races at the track, and young Martin was an avid fan.
“Back in the day in the ’80s, they used to have the Modified Race of Champions there, so my dad and my uncle Barney actually raced there a few times,” he said. “I was just completely in awe of the cars going around the track. Getting to see the cars and just being around racing, I remember how exciting it was. To think now that I’ve been able to win a championship at the top level is all pretty crazy still.”
Decades in close proximity to Pocono have not only given Truex an uncommon familiarity with the raceway, but they’ve also afforded him the opportunity to develop a level of comfort in the surrounding mountains that puts him at ease when it comes time to compete.
He spent significant time in the Poconos growing up – it’s where he learned to snowboard when he was 15 – and each return trip elicits equal parts nostalgia, gratitude, and excitement. He recalls his first experiences of the track, his fortune to have won there, and his hope for future successes.
That said, he admitted that with significant rule changes for the 2019 season, it will take a special effort to navigate his way to victory this time. According to Truex, the biggest difference in the driving this year has been the wake that the cars create – “the hole that these cars punch in the air.”
“Typically, in the past, you could get up pretty close to the guy in front of you, maybe get him loose, wiggle off the bottom, and come up the rear coming into turn three,” he said. “Now, we can’t get close enough to each other if we’re in the same line. The hard part for me has just been not attacking on the corner entry on a guy, but trying to figure out how to strategize – how to time that run – coming off the corner, down the straightaway, where you can complete that pass.”
He describes his adjustments in passionate detail, and figures that the rule changes will combine with the raceway’s individuality to demand comprehensive planning by each driver.
“It’s a lot more strategy instead of trying to just outdrive a guy.”
In his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex sits sixth in the Cup Series standings after an eventful Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he recovered from a 144th-lap wreck with Clint Bowyer to finish sixth in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301.
The brand-new team created uncertainty for both Truex and Pearn about their chances for success, but each has been pleasantly surprised with the showing.
“You just never know how things are going to go when you switch teams,” said Truex, who had been with Furniture Row Racing. “I had high expectations. I don’t know if they were as high as what we’ve achieved, so that’s always a good feeling, and I feel like there’s room to grow.”
Added Pearn: “I don’t think any time you switch teams you know for sure how it’s going to play out and how it’s going to work, but we’ve hit it off pretty well. It’s been a pretty solid year so far – definitely the best that we’ve ever had together, which is crazy to think."