DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 09: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pros Shops Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 09, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series champion and New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. spoke to ESNY about Daytona memories and his 2020 season.

Geoff Magliocchetti

There are 992 miles between Daytona Beach, FL and the unincorporated community of Mayetta, NJ.

In other words, a mere 500 more should be no issue for Martin Truex Jr.

In his NASCAR travels, Truex has been able to haul a sizable trophy case back north. Among his accolades are the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series title and hardware from 26 victorious Cup events. But one oversized keepsake has eluded him: the Harley J. Earl Trophy, earned by the winner of the Daytona 500.

It certainly isn’t for lack of trying. Truex fell one-hundredth of a second short to future Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin in 2016. That near-miss came when he was driving the No. 78 Toyota for now-defunct Furniture Row Racing.

After growing up in South Jersey, Philadelphia Eagles country in football fan’s terms, Truex is now firmly entrenched in the No. 19 Toyota of Gibbs, a champion Washington Redskins coach. His second season begins with his 16th run at the annual season opener at Daytona on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

The annual winter trip to Daytona International Speedway has long been a tradition in the Truex family. He reflected on the impact Daytona has had on him in an exclusive interview with ESNY earlier this week.

“It was huge. For us, that always meant the start of the race season,” Truex recalled. That start often led to local showcases at New Egypt Speedway and Wall Stadium.

Racing has always been a family affair for Truex. His father, Martin Sr., ran 15 races at the NASCAR Xfinity Series level (NASCAR’s Triple-A-baseball equivalent then known as the Busch Series) and his younger brother Ryan won two titles on NASCAR’s lower-tier Series East circuit.

A family trip to Daytona was no exception. Central Jersey memories remain fond in Truex’s mind, but the small-town tracks were no comparison to Daytona and its capacity of over 100,000. He recalled the awe he felt upon a teenage visit to Daytona to see the minor league ARCA races leading up to the 500.

“I think I was 15 or 16 the first time we came down here,” Truex said. “I remember how big this place was. It kind of blew my mind the first time we drove in here. I was like ‘oh my God…this is a racetrack?’

“It’s amazing how big it felt. I still feel that way when I come in here.”

Improbable as it may be for a kid from Jersey to become one of NASCAR’s strongest forces, the theme of beating the odds has been prevalent in Truex’s career. Reliable rides at Furniture Row and Michael Waltrip Racing disappeared when those teams shut down, but Truex made himself an immovable piece of the NASCAR picture. He scored 25 wins over the last decade, including a Cup Series-high seven wins in his first with JGR.

This time, though, Truex will have to embark on his quest without one of his biggest tentpoles by his side. No. 19 crew chief Cole Pearn resigned in December to spend more time with his family. The Ontario, Canada native had been on hand for all but two of Truex’s 26 career victories.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Former lead engineer James Small has assumed the role. The pair previously worked together at both JGR and Furniture Row. Truex believes that he’s building new chemistry with Small in his new role.

“I’m very confident in his abilities and what he can do,” Truex said of Small. “He’s been a big part of our success over the last few seasons. He’s obviously been behind the scenes and not in the spotlight as an engineer. But, now being the crew chief, I think people will get to know him better.

“The communication is something we’ve had already, a lot of dialogue about the race car. I feel like, right now, everything’s going as smooth as it possibly could. I’ll miss Cole, wish him the best, but I feel like James will do a great job and we’ll continue to perform the way we have.”

Despite the near-miss in 2016, Truex has often been on the wrong end of luck at Daytona. In 29 overall starts at the track, Truex has finished in the top ten only three other times. He briefly rectified his woes with a second-place finish in the 400-mile summer event in July 2018 (behind only former Furniture Row and current Gibbs teammate Erik Jones), but he got caught up in a big crash with eight laps to go in last season’s opener. Another big wreck ended his chances in last weekend’s Busch Clash exhibition.

Truex managed to avoid trouble in Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duels (qualifying races that determinates the 500’s starting order). That top ten finish allows him to start 15th on Sunday.

“We’ve been close for sure. For me, it’s crazy to think we’ve actually come to it,” he said. “I feel like, every time we come down here, it’s just exciting to have an opportunity to win the sport’s biggest race.”

“My focus is ‘what can I do to put myself in that position?'” he continued. “This week is all about strategizing and trying to figure what you need your car to do. On Sunday, it’s all about getting yourself in a position to get into the front of the field.”

The winner of Sunday’s race, the 62nd edition of The Great American Race, will receive a NASCAR-record payout of $23.6 million. A sellout crowd will be on hand and millions more are expected to tune in on television, including fans from the northeast.

Once a fan from a foreign racing land, Truex knows just the formula for securing more fans from unusual NASCAR places.

“I think the biggest thing you can do is go to a race,” he said in regards to how he’d introduce a prospective new fan. “I’ve never, in my career, brought somebody for the first time that didn’t have a great time and absolutely love it. There’s something about seeing it in person that you can’t get on TV. It’s the smell, it’s the sound, it’s the feel, the vibrations, the excitement of the race…there’s nothing like it.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490