When Martin Truex Jr. won in the Sprint Cup Series for the first time on June 4, 2007 at Dover, he never imagined it would take 219 races to get back into victory lane.
Truex wasn't considered a favorite to win Sunday's race at Sonoma Raceway, especially with a starting position of 14th. Just two of the previous 24 events at this Northern California road course had been won from a starting spot outside the top 13. After leading 51 of 110 laps, including the final 28, around this 1.99-mile course, Truex finally put an end to his winless streak.
It was an emotional victory for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver as well. After taking the checkered flag for the first time in quite awhile, he wasn't exactly sure what was going through his mind during his cool-down lap.
"I was a frigging mess," Truex admitted. "It was terrible. I had to stop and start doing donuts, because I couldn't think about what I was doing. I tried to cue the radio once, and I couldn't even talk. I thought, 'OK, I'm going to do some donuts and wave to the fans.' But after I stopped the first time and did that, I calmed down a little bit, and I just wanted to make sure I took my time coming back, because I remember at Dover, it all happens way too fast. You never know when you're going to get that opportunity again.
"So I made sure I at least destroyed both my rear tires, took my time and waved to everybody, got the checkered flag and came back slow. I told (the team) on the radio, if they're waiting on me, too bad. I'm taking my time. That's the only thing I thought of after I got it together. But when I first crossed the line, I just was screaming. I don't even know what I was saying on the radio. No idea."
During his 218-race winless drought, Truex had finished in the runner-up position six times. After finishing second to Kyle Busch in April at Texas, he said, "Man, I'm tired of finishing second. It's getting old." Truex led 142 laps in that race, but Busch beat him out of the pits for the lead during a round of stops under caution with 20 laps to go. He finished a half second behind Busch.
Truex also finished second in both races at Kansas in 2012. In the spring event, he put on a dominating performance by leading 173 laps, but Denny Hamlin grabbed the top spot from him with 31 laps remaining and went on to score the victory. Truex challenged Matt Kenseth for the lead in the closing laps of the fall race there, but once again came up short at the finish.
"There's been days when I thought, 'This sucks. This isn't any fun anymore'," Truex said. "But the past couple years have just been great, and I just owe so many people thanks. Just proud to be able to work with this group of people and thankful for the opportunity."
Truex's streak was the second longest in series history. He was just eight races away from tying Bill Elliott's drought of 226 events without a victory. Elliott, the 1988 Cup champion, had been winless from Sept. 4, 1994 (Darlington) to Nov. 11, 2001 (Homestead).
When Truex claimed his first Sprint Cup victory in '07, he drove the No. 1 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the time. Truex left DEI and joined Michael Waltrip's team to drive the No. 56 Toyota after the 2009 season concluded.
Truex has been paired with crew chief Chad Johnston since the middle of the 2011 season.
Last year, Truex and teammate Clint Bowyer gave MWR its first appearance in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. While Bowyer finished second in the Chase, 39 points behind champion Brad Keselowski, Truex ended the year 11th in the rankings.
"I've felt like for the last year and a half that if we could just get one (win), if we could get this first one out of the way as a team, that we could do a lot better job, and we could win a lot of races, because we've been so good and so fast," he said.
With the win at Sonoma, Truex moved from 13th to 10th in the point standings. There are 10 races to go before the Chase begins.
"It's just really special to get a win for Martin and for (team sponsor) NAPA," Waltrip said. "I believe in this man. He can drive a car as good as anybody on the track. Chad is new to the crew chiefing game. He joined as an engineer, and he's worked his way up. He called the perfect race (Sunday), and he's been on his game all year long. It's really fun to see these two mature, and I think they can do a lot of special things over the next few years."
Truex gave Johnston his first win in NASCAR's top series.
"These things aren't easy to win," Johnston said. "Every week, there's 43 guys out there that are capable of winning, so they're not easy to win by any means. Everything has to go right for it to happen."
Truex's win came just in time for his birthday. The Mayetta, N.J., native will turn 33 years old on Saturday, the same day of the 400-mile Sprint Cup race at Kentucky.
Perhaps his birthday wish should be that he doesn't go another 219 races without victory.