KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Martin Truex Jr. felt the need to apologize.
"Sorry I let that one get away," he radioed to his Michael Waltrip Racing crew in the aftermath of Sunday's Sprint Cup event at Kansas Speedway, where Truex led 173 laps but wound up second to Denny Hamlin. The tires put on his car on the afternoon's final pit stop didn't agree with his No. 56 Toyota, and Truex felt his vehicle getting loose at the worst possible time. He had dominated the event, weathering every challenge thrown at him, but with 30 laps remaining the handling went away and he found himself unable to hold on to the lead.
Loose loose loose loose loose.
-- MARTIN TRUEX JR., in-race radio communication
To put tires on, and not touch the car, and all of a sudden the car drives worse than it has all day, it is pretty frustrating when you haven't won in a while.
-- MARTIN TRUEX JR., post-race comments
It was painful to watch, and to listen to. "I can't believe this," Truex lamented over the radio just before Hamlin powered by, the disappointment in his voice stemming from much more than simply one potential race victory slipping away. Truex also is a driver lugging around what is now a 175-race winless streak that dates to his lone victory in NASCAR's premier series, at Dover in the summer of 2007. But more than anything, Truex is the senior driver at MWR, and someone who clearly feels an obligation to carry his organization to the next level.
That much he wears on the sleeve of his firesuit. MWR is in the midst of a breakthrough season, with its two full-time drivers ranking high in the points -- Truex moved up to second behind leader Greg Biffle thanks to his performance Sunday -- and its third vehicle proving competitive no matter who is behind the wheel. It's all a great leap forward for an organization that sees its next step as consistently challenging for Chase berths and race wins, the latter of which it's managed only twice, both with former driver David Reutimann. This revamped MWR team is for real, bolstered by better cars and the additions of Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin, and fast every week. But the big statement, that next race win, is still out there unclaimed. And Truex badly wants to be the one to deliver it.
All of which made the finish at Kansas such a numbing disappointment. Truex didn't have the local ties of teammate and native Kansan Bowyer, whose car went out early Sunday with a busted valve train in its engine. But it didn't matter. For Truex, recording that signature next victory for MWR isn't just his job. It's his duty.
"This is an organization that he has helped build," said Ty Norris, MWR's executive vice president and general manager. "I don't care what business you're in -- if you helped build it, you have a lot more emotional attachment to it. He feels like he took us to a level when he came, and he's going to take us to another level."
No wonder Sunday's final result stung so much. Truex, who at one point led by as many as 9 seconds, withstood a furious challenge from Jimmie Johnson and remained in command when cars made their final round of pit stops under green. His stop was incident-free, and he cycled back into the lead. But quickly, it became evident that something wasn't right. "Loose loose loose loose loose," Truex radioed. "I can't do anything." Crew chief Chad Johnston had made no adjustments on the car, which had been a rocket all day. But the new set of tires made it too free, and suddenly Hamlin was in the lead, and Truex was left to attempt a few banzai moves in the final laps in an attempt to close the gap.
"It was desperation, a last-ditch effort, just trying something," Truex said. "There was no chance of me even coming back to making it work."
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On the cool-down laps, Truex apologized to his team more than once. Johnston knew his driver was beating himself up. "I'm sure he is, and it's undeservedly so," the crew chief said. "He did everything that he can, and he does everything that he can every lap, and that's all you can expect out of him. We don't need to be hanging our heads over this. We're a strong race team. We've been consistent all year, and the wins will come."
Added Norris: "He shouldn't beat himself up at all. He's been such a pleasure this year. He wants Clint and Mark to know that's he's been here. He's such a leader right now, and it's a position he may not have had to be in before. ... He just feels so comfortable with the guys around him. His team has been built around him, for him. Look, he wants to get rid of that, 'Yeah, but. Ran great, but.' He's capable of multiple wins. We get in the Chase, he's going to be a guy they're going to have to race."
Afterward, Truex struggled to remember the last time he had been so crushed with a runner-up finish. "I guess if we can be this disappointed with second, it shows how far we've come as a race team," he said. From team executives to the crew chief to the driver, the silver linings were everywhere -- the No. 55 car was strong once again, Toyotas took the top two spots, Truex assumed second in Sprint Cup points, when the wins do come they'll come in bunches. And indeed, from an MWR standpoint there was plenty to feel good about, despite engine issues suffered by Bowyer and Martin. But Truex sees himself as the leader of this team, and he puts weight on himself to elevate it, and the real satisfaction won't come until he does.
"I think that plays a big part in it," he said, referring to the degree of frustration that accompanied Sunday's finish. "I felt like [Sunday] was kind of a day where I thought I was back, and felt really strong that we'd have a car that could contend for the win going into the race. And then to be able to do that all day long, it was a good feeling.
"I know our wins are going to come. We just need to keep running like we are. It's been a long time since I've won, and I know I'm capable of it, and that's the most disappointing thing, letting one slip away [Sunday]. If I had made a mistake or we'd made a bad adjustment or something, it would probably be a little bit easier to swallow, to be honest. But to put tires on, and not touch the car, and all of a sudden the car drives worse than it has all day, it is pretty frustrating when you haven't won in a while. But again, I've got a lot of confidence in this team right now. ... Good things are in the future for us, and I've just got to keep looking at that direction."
But late Sunday afternoon, through the haze of such a letdown, that much could be difficult to see. There was nothing more Truex could have done, everyone agreed. The driver, though, wasn't so certain.
"I don't know," he said. "I'd like to try it again."