DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Martin Truex Jr. saw his Daytona 500 victory vanish in just a blink of an eye.
Eyes open. Eyes shut.
One-hundredth of a second, the time it takes lightning to strike the ground.
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Truex might want to keep his eyes closed for a bit longer around Daytona. At the speedway, reminders are everywhere that Truex was edged by an eyelash at the finish line by Denny Hamlin in last year’s race.
Hamlin stayed on the gas for a door-to-door dash to the checkered flag that ended in a photo finish with Truex. He beat Truex by 0.010 seconds, the closest finish in the history of the race.
One more step on the pedal, a tick of a faster pit stop, anything that could shaved time off his run and it would have been Truex with a solo seat on the stage like Hamlin at Daytona 500 media day, recalling the victory. Instead, Truex was asked to recount his split-second second place finish. Truex said it was hard not to cringe each time he watched the replay. Hamlin always wins.
”I’m like, God, so close, why didn’t you do this?” Truex said. ”As bad as it hurt, at the same time, it was kind of cool to be a part of that finish. That’s really the first time I’ve had an opportunity to win this race. I guess if you have to lose one before you can win one, that was my losing one, and hopefully next time around I’ll be able to win it.”
Truex gets another chance Sunday in the No. 78 Toyota to turn last year’s finish into a footnote of his career and not a defining moment.
”I will have to relive that moment the rest of my career unless I win it,” he said.
Hamlin is trying to join Richard Petty (1973-1974), Cale Yarborough (1983-1984) and Sterling Marlin (1994-1995) as the only drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500s.
”I know for only two more days people are going to be talking about me and the last one, unless I do it again,” Hamlin said. ”We’re almost going to be forgotten.”
Truex’s career renaissance at Furniture Row Racing continued last season with four wins and another spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. Truex led a stunning 392 laps in a Coca-Cola 600 victory and then won at Darlington just two races before the Chase opened. He won Chase races in the first round at Chicago and Dover but failed to advance to race for the championship finale for the second straight season.
Truex was run off the track when he crashed in last weekend’s opening Clash at Daytona. Furniture Row, which added Erik Jones to the driver lineup, had issues with the two cars. FRR faced inspection woes with the template over the weekend and crew chief Cole Pearn returned to the race shop to start fixing other cars in time for next week’s race at Atlanta.
”It’s been a big issue,” Truex said. ”It’s just definitely a setback that you don’t want this early in the season, especially for us. We were building all new cars because we changed the body style this year.”
Still, he acknowledged that he is in ”the best situation I’ve ever been in and it’s exciting for me to come to the track every weekend knowing I’m going to have a shot to win.”
He certainly had a shot a year ago when Hamlin pulled out of line with a lap to go and chased down teammate Matt Kenseth. He staved off Kenseth’s block, and wedged between Kenseth and Truex. Hamlin held on for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Truex said after the race he wasn’t sure what he could have done differently. He’s now had a year to think about the agonizing finish.
”I could have tapped the brake off of (turn) 4 and not got past him so early, and I’d have beat him,” Truex said. ”You’re crazy, you think you’re going for the finish line, tap the brake, dummy; you’re trying to race to the finish line; why would you ever want to touch the brakes? But either that or just run him off the racetrack. I could have done that.”