- Marty Smith, ESPN
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Martin Truex Jr. is northbound and down, headed home from a television appearance in Charlotte, N.C. He is giddy. You can hear it. His voice is louder, his wit quicker, than it's been in a while. The giddiness is in fact a month old, since he truly set sail at Michael Waltrip Racing.
For a race car driver like him, happiness is measured in miles per hour and wheel input. For the first time in a long time, Truex considers that balance limitless.
"I know everybody's a champion in the offseason," he said facetiously of the optimism teams feel during preseason, "but I feel really good about this. This is the best position I've ever been in in the Cup series."
The reasons behind the new attitude are rather simple, it seems. Stability. Corporate focus. Direction. The like.
It's been a while since he's felt those were prevalent, too.
Several years ago, Truex was among the hottest young free agents in NASCAR, with tremendous upside, good looks and savvy, and a down-home, regular-guy appeal that made fans swoon and owners and sponsors drool. It didn't hurt that he was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s boy. At the time, he was driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and ultimately felt it best to stay put.
He said some folks close to him implored him to reconsider. Looking back now, he admits staying wasn't the best decision.
Loyalty only gets you so far in business.
"It probably wasn't the best situation for me," Truex said. "It probably wasn't in my best interest and it came back and bit me in the ass. At first I thought it was the right thing, but some people that were smarter than me knew it wasn't."
The years that followed included incessant pestering about Junior's future plans, the health and stability of DEI, and rumored corporate mergers with other race teams, two of which ultimately happened. That leaves a man to question where, exactly, his bread's buttered.
Last year alone was mind-numbing. Following DEI's merger with Chip Ganassi Racing last offseason, Truex's team moved in with Juan Pablo Montoya's just before the season to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. While Montoya flourished in a jaw-dropping breakthrough season, Truex's team never found any semblance of consistency. They struggled mightily all year.
As far as he was concerned, his team was second fiddle from day one.
"Last year was a tough deal for the whole team, really," he said. "I mean, we came in there and had to change how we did everything. Hell, I had one new car all year. We ran it at Phoenix, sat on the pole and ran fourth or fifth.
"We got in there late, got started late. We were the B-team, for sure. We had to adapt to everything that they did. Which, I ain't passing blame, that's just how it worked out. Juan started running good and we got worse. It was a weird deal. I'm glad it's over.
"It was hard to sleep at night. I thought about it all the time and it drove me absolutely crazy."
Despite the tough season, Truex again found himself as NASCAR's hottest free agent. Throughout the decision-making process, he was reminded of 2005: Cast loyalties aside, and get yours while you can.
"I learned a lot from that. You've got to look at the options and take your heart out of it, as hard as that is to do," he said. "You have to look at what is the best for Martin Truex Jr.'s racing career. I don't think I did that last time, looking back on it. I definitely did this time. It was the right thing to do."
This time he landed at MWR, a decision he based largely on fast cars, an established sponsorship from NAPA Auto Parts, like-minded teammates and a rock-solid infrastructure that was built from nothing in three years.
"Everything I've seen so far at MWR, I've been really impressed with -- from the top to the bottom," he said. "Everybody knows who the bosses are. Everybody knows who they answer to."
That confidence, he said, filters down to the shop floor.
"Everybody loves working there," he continued. "I'm telling you, it's the coolest thing I've ever seen in my damn life. It kind of reminds me of DEI when I went there in 2003. Everybody's proud to work there. They don't just go there for a paycheck, and that's a good thing."
MWR vice president/general manager Ty Norris was instrumental in luring Truex to DEI way back when. He was equally as instrumental this time around. Landing Truex to drive the No. 56 Toyota meant MWR suddenly had street cred in the garage.
"Validation is the word we use," Norris said. "It is validation of the work we've done, and it's one of the first indicators that people in the garage, guys who have options and have opportunities to drive for more established teams, put their stamp of approval on it."
Crew chief Pat Tryson is further proof. Tryson has directed teams at some of the premier organizations in Sprint Cup, from Roush to, most recently, Penske. Now he's at MWR.
"When he walks in and says you have every tool necessary -- you can't just make people say that," Norris said. "They either see it or they don't. So for a guy like him to say, 'It's all here, now it's up to me and Martin,' that's credibility. It's internal validity and external credibility."
Several folks deserve credit for that validity. Fact is, during its first season MWR was on the brink of disaster. Like, real close. Investor Rob Kauffman swooped in and saved the team financially. Former Cup series team owner Cal Wells was hired to oversee competition and almost immediately changed the culture.
He implemented a five-member executive committee that currently includes Norris, Steve Hallam (who came onboard from Formula One), technical director Nick Hughes, Larry Johns and vice president of race operations and logistics Bobby Kennedy.
Wells chairs the board and reports to Michael Waltrip and Kauffman.
"Everybody knows very clearly their swim lane," Norris said. "There is clear delineation of what our focus is. The five of us, along with Cal, set the goals and direction of the company. All five act as one in the executive committee, but we also all have our own distinguishable responsibilities.
"Cal deserves tremendous credit for creating the committee, but also putting people together that all respect what the other person does, and all very diverse in experience. It's an interesting culture."
If you ask around the shop, folks say there is a common bond shared by the MWR power players: fear of failure.
They've all experienced it in some fashion. They know how humbling it is, how much they hate it and how hard they're willing to work to make certain they don't fail again. Individual pride, then, is an afterthought.
They all have plenty to prove, Truex included. He will be held to a high standard internally.
It's going, er, well thus far.
To date, Truex and Tryson have conducted two on-track tests. In his six years of NASCAR competition, Truex has rarely felt so productive -- not because they unloaded fast, but rather because they made the car fast through communication and smarts.
"On both accounts, in both sessions, I left feeling like I'd won the lottery, stepped in s--- and was going to win the race," Truex said. "That's why I went there. I saw it as a place where I could get to that next level and I guess what I have to do is just get results. That's what it's about. That's what I haven't had for a while."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
9dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information