DAYTONA BEACH — The steering column and pedals are in the same place, but nearly everything else around Martin Truex has changed.
"New team, new car, new sponsor, new crew chief, new guys all around. Really just a whole new deal for me," said Truex, 29, who starts anew this season with Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing, driving the blue-and-yellow No. 56 car after making a name for himself with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
After winning the Nationwide series title in 2004 and 2005, after making a splash in the summer of 2007, Truex has had two difficult, uneven seasons as DEI merged to become part of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2009. But for all the newness around him, he has focused on winning by sticking to the same instincts.
"You just be yourself," Truex said Thursday at NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway. "They really encouraged that. They said, 'We want you to be our driver, and we want you to be you.' Expectations are high. I'm excited. I think the sky's the limit for the team."
A year ago, Truex started the year with promise, winning the pole for the Daytona 500. He finished 11th, his best showing in nine Sprint Cup races at the track. But he struggled from there, finishing 25th or worse in five of the next six races, and didn't get a top-five finish until a fifth-place showing in November at Phoenix.
"Last year seemed to start off okay, then took a sudden turn downhill," he said. "The next few weeks was very disappointing. Our whole season was up and down like that."
By July, he had signed with Waltrip Racing, finishing out his season with Earnhardt Ganassi but very much in the shadow of Juan Pablo Montoya, who had a breakout year. Truex said the biggest difference with Waltrip is a feeling of steadiness he has missed the past two seasons.
"Stability," he said when asked for the most significant change around him. "Within the company, within the team. The whole company is solid as a rock. The foundation is solid. Everything seems to be really smooth and really easy there. People get their job done, and you're like, 'Wow. That was easy.' It's a lot of fun."
Truex hopes to return to the promise he showed in 2007, when he earned his only Sprint Cup win at Dover, then followed with three top-three finishes in the next four races, earning a spot in the Chase for the Championship. In 55 races since that flash, he has had no wins and just two top-three finishes.
One reason Truex is a popular pick for a breakout year is his new crew chief, Pat Tryson, who helped Kurt Busch to fourth place in points last season. The two have bonded quickly in winter testing, and Truex has been surprised with how comfortable they are already.
"The relationship with Pat has been really easy," Truex said. "There was no forcing it, no 'Well, we need to hang out and get to know each other.' We just started talking and hanging out in the shop. When we tested, I was blown away with how well everything went."
As a first race, Daytona gives Truex a huge platform to establish a new identity, and unlike last year, he's confident that he'll be able to sustain his success over the course of the season. His annual winnings have been remarkably consistent in his four full Sprint Cup seasons, as he has earned between $4.6 million and $4.9 million all four years. February is a month for NASCAR optimism, but Truex is eager to start something new, starting with today's Daytona 500 qualifying.
"Absolutely, it'd be awesome to come out and make a splash," he said.
Patrick to start 12th
Danica Patrick qualified 12th on Friday for today's ARCA race at Daytona, the stock car debut for the IndyCar star. Patrick is trying to absorb knowledge from anywhere she can. It made sense to talk to Montoya, a former open-wheel star who made a successful transition to NASCAR. Patrick didn't go to Montoya for advice — he went out of his way to find her Thursday.
"I've never spoken to Juan before," Patrick said. "He's a really nice guy. I really liked talking to him, and he offered up his help throughout the rest of the year if I want it, whatever I want, so I have a lot to learn from Juan."
EARNHARDT FASTEST: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the fastest in a rain-shortened Cup practice with a lap of 188.679 mph. The 2004 Daytona 500 winner led two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates to the top of the chart.
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Times staff writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.