DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. was just one of many Philadelphia Eagles fans bummed when Nick Foles' pass deflected off a receiver and was intercepted to end a playoff push toward a second straight Super Bowl.
"They had a shot," Truex said. "Without that interception, I think they could have pulled it off."
The Eagles were smacked with the same forlorn reality Truex suffered through only two months earlier — it's hard to win back-to-back championships.
"Tell me about it," he said, laughing. "I was closer than they were, though."
Truex fell one spot short of winning his second consecutive NASCAR Cup championship in a determined bid to send Furniture Row Racing out a winner . Truex stayed in contention until the final laps in a season where one of his top sponsors abandoned him and his team was set to go out of business.
It was, Truex noted, "one of those years where you can't believe everything that was going on."
Truex — whose late-career metamorphosis from journeyman to champion was unprecedented in NASCAR history — had one heck of a landing spot when his team folded. He signed with perennial powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing to round out the most fearsome foursome of talent in one shop: 2015 champ Kyle Busch, 2016 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and top prospect Erik Jones.
He needed little time to get acquainted with his new team because of FRR's alliance with Gibbs that saw Truex operate as essentially a fifth car for JGR. As much as sponsor 5-hour Energy's defection crippled FRR, the defunct team noted at the time that "rising costs of continuing a team alliance" with Gibbs played a critical role.
With FRR gone, Gibbs ended up without a top competitor and its star driver completely in house.
"If you really looked at how we worked together before, I really feel like it's the same thing," Truex said. "It's just that I'm under their roof now instead of racing under a different name. We worked together, we shared information, we did debriefs together the last three seasons. We raced hard, we had a lot of respect for each other."
Truex had 16 of his 19 career victories over the last three seasons and combined with Busch and Kevin Harvick to become a dominant "Big Three" that won 20 of 36 races in 2018. Truex and Busch routinely race for the championship in the finale (won in '18 by Joey Logano) and were entangled in a pair of dust-ups along the way: they wrecked racing for the lead in the 2017 Brickyard 400 and Busch spun out Truex at Bristol last season.
Truex, who replaced Daniel Suarez in the No. 19 Toyota, said the drivers can all get along.
"We didn't hold anything back," Truex said. "We didn't try to not help the other guy because we knew we were racing each other. We did all we could to help each other be the best we could be during the week. When the green flag dropped, we raced as hard as anybody else. I don't think that will change."
Truex has a few familiar faces joining him at JGR. Canadian Cole Pearn, who quarterbacked Truex's career renaissance, is still calling the shots as crew chief. Truex's FRR car chief and a handful of team members also made the move out of the single-car shop in Denver to NASCAR's Charlotte-area hub. Gibbs said Pearn and Truex "both make us stronger as an organization."
Perhaps at JGR Truex can knock off one major achievement missing on his resume. He is 0 for 14 in the Daytona 500 and was runner-up to Denny Hamlin in the closest finish in race history in 2016 .
No matter the team, Truex is adept at following Pearn's orders, from the pit box to the penalty box. At a recent stop at a Philadelphia Flyers game, Truex said his crew chief had one directive:
"Whatever you do, get your picture with Gritty," Truex said of Pearn's request.
Truex got his photo op with the googly-eyed Flyers mascot. Gritty clapped his squeaky paws after he presented Truex with a No. 19 Flyers jersey . The duo danced for the big screen and took turns playfully stroking each other's beards .
It was a needed dose of fun to ease the heartbreak of a runner-up finish a year ago.
"As time goes in, it stings more," Truex said. "You realize the position you were in, the opportunity that was presented. Just the fact the way the sport is now, how hard it is to get back there."
He expects to race for the Cup title again — and win it for JGR.
"They're known for winning races and championships," Truex said. "I'm ready to hold up my end of the deal and see how it goes."
More AP NASCAR coverage: https://apnews.com/NASCAR