Martin Truex Jr. has never really been searching for validation of his 2010 move to Michael Waltrip Racing. The quickly declining future—calling it a dumpster fire isn't far off—of former team Dale Earnhardt Inc. made any move for Truex seem akin to striking gold.
But Truex never wrote off the move to MWR as a stepping stone to something bigger or a stopgap for a poor situation. He called MWR a team where his intentions were to compete for wins and championships—a place where Truex could become a NASCAR star.
More than three seasons later and finally in possession of his first points-paying win for the team, Truex still hasn't reached that reality.
That 2010 move came at a point in Truex's career where his brand wasn't white-hot and his on-track competition had yet to dazzle the sport's top teams. Truex was considered a very good and occasionally great driver, but he never made it to the stage of being a can't-miss opportunity in contract negotiations.
It's safe to say Truex is continuing his rise toward that exclusive level of notoriety held, for now, by guys like Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski. But it's also safe to say he's still got a long way to go.
On the non-competitive side, he's a solid pitchman for the team's cornerstone sponsor Napa Auto Parts, though his reach isn't quite Waltripian. A small scale, sure, but Truex's fan influence looked awful limited when I stumbled upon an autograph appearance he attended two days before the Coca-Cola 600 at the track's nearby Bass Pro Shops. Truex was signing by the time I had walked by, but the line was short and customers shopping nearby didn't have trouble going about their anticipated business. The gulf between that scene and what a NASCAR A-List type may incite seemed awful wide.
And Truex, now a two-time winner at the highest level thanks to his commanding performance at Sonoma Raceway, still hasn't shown an ability on-track to overwhelm or overpower on a consistent basis. Prior to 2013, Truex had just 11 top-5 finishes in three seasons with MWR. Johnson had 18 last year alone.
As the 2013 season neared it's halfway point in June, Truex seemed to be finding a groove that could elevate his star power to somewhere near where the sport's titans now inhabit. A broken suspension piece ultimately hurt the handling of his No. 56 Toyota near the end of April's Texas Motor Speedway in which he led 142 laps before finishing second. Adding insult, the broken part lowered Truex's car beyond NASCAR tolerances and he was saddled with a minor penalty thanks to the unintentional violation.
But that runner-up finish was one of four top-5 finishes in the season's first 16 races, and one of seven top-10 runs. Most notably, those good finishes—aside from his Sonoma road course win—were coming at the bread and butter of NASCAR: the various 1.5- and two-mile tracks that form a heavy percentage of the sport's schedule.
It's exactly the type of racing and finishing that Truex needs to continue if he wants to ascend NASCAR's star ladder. And it's the type of racing that can easily cause his stock to be viewed at an over-inflated level.
But let's not forget that Truex is racing for a Toyota team often perceived just a notch under Joe Gibbs Racing on the manufacturer's totem pole. And don't lose sight of knowing that Truex still gets to do battle week in and week out with the titans he's trying to beat. A road course win and a handful of other top runs doesn't change that Johnson is still prowling this sport.
Truex's opportunity to shine in NASCAR and his chance to move his most recognizable titles of past race winner and former Nationwide Series champion will come in the sport's title fight. Truex was a participant in last year's 12-team Chase for the Sprint Cup alongside teammate Clint Bowyer. However, he reeled in just one top-5 finish and four total top-10 runs.
Yes, that's a good 10-race stretch for many in NASCAR's top division. But when the title was on the line, that handful of decent finishes and zero wins was only enough for Truex to earn 11th of the 12-car field. Meanwhile, Bowyer wound up third with an outside shot at the title as the season wore down.
There's little doubt that Truex has the equipment and the skill set to move his legacy in the No. 56 toward the sport's elite. But ability and application are two separate things.
For Truex, we still need to see a consistency in the latter if he wants to reach NASCAR stardom.