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Fennelly: Martin Truex Jr. driven by narrow miss in last year's Daytona 500

Denny Hamlin (11) beats out Martin Truex Jr. (78) at the finish line to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Daytona Beach. [AP photo]

Denny Hamlin (11) beats out Martin Truex Jr. (78) at the finish line to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016, in Daytona Beach. [AP photo]

The Daytona 500 is a little more than two weeks away. Driver Martin Truex Jr. visited Amalie Arena for Tuesday's Lightning game as part of a media tour to promote the Feb. 26 race. Truex exchanged helmets with Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison and gave away some race tickets to fans.

He was also asked to relive last year's 500.

Lucky him.

Actually, Truex was a very good sport while talking about last February's heartbreak, when he finished second to Denny Hamlin in the 500 by inches – by 0.010 seconds, the closest finish in the history of the Daytona 500.

"I saw it in the offseason a few times on Twitter and different places, and, of course, during the Super Bowl, the commercial …" Truex said with a smile. Ah, the commercial. The 500 finish was prominently featured in Fox Sports' promo for the race. "Talking about it all day has kind of brought it a little back. Looking forward to getting on the other side of it.

"I would say it probably drives me more than anything. It was really cool to be part of that – the closest finish ever – with all the guys who have raced at Daytona, the stories, the past history and to be part of that is neat. But to come that close hurts. It's definitely motivation."

The 500 oh-so-close finish didn't truly take away from Truex's 11th full NASCAR season. He won four races. He made The Chase for the second consecutive year. He won two races in the first round.

No, what took away from his season was a second-round Chase exit after a blown engine at Talladega.

"It was definitely tough, to start off the way we did, win two of the first three Cup races, and to go out at Talladega with that engine problem," Truex said. "It was a heartbreaker for all of us. We worked so hard all season long, and felt like we were ready to pounce."

Which brings us to the new NASCAR rules, which are somewhat complicated, naturally, and aimed at producing more heated racing within races.

Get out your calculators, kids.

Races will now be divided into three "stages," with the top 10 at the first two breaks being awarded points. That's just one change. Maybe the biggest departure is that drivers will also earn bonus points during the regular season, and the points will carry into the playoff.

Truex said that when the new rules were announced, he instantly did the math on his 2016 season.

"Right away. What would that have done for us?"

The new points system would have advanced Truex to the third round, though not to the Final Four at Homestead, which he reached in 2015.

"The 'stages,' it definitely adds another element, something to follow," Truex said. "The bonus points for that are going to be huge. Guys are going to be going all out for a win just in the middle of the race just to get a few points. Points are everything now, because we can take them through the postseason. That's huge. For us last year, that would have gotten us through Talladega. I think the changes are going to be good. I think the fans are going to enjoy them. The drivers are already looking forward to them."

Here comes Daytona. NASCAR begins its season with its Super Bowl.

"It's the race of all races," Truex said. "The Daytona 500 is the one. It's the one everyone wants to win. When you win, they call you a champion. They don't just say you won the race. It's kind of like the green jacket of golf."

He was inches away, the blink of an eye.

No matter.

Truex grinned.

"Hell, I'd never finished second at the Daytona 500. That was my best result ever. I'll get a lot more chances to win it. I look at it as I've come closer than anyone who hasn't won it – ever."

Fennelly: Martin Truex Jr. driven by narrow miss in last year's Daytona 500 02/08/17 [Last modified: Monday, February 20, 2017 11:01am]
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