DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - As the start of a new Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season arrives, life is quite a bit better for Martin Truex Jr.-not to mention noticeably different.
Now that he's returning to Daytona as the series champion, Truex feels that difference.
"I do a little bit, honestly," Truex told the NASCAR Wire Service on Wednesday at Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. "I feel like less pressure, more relaxed, more confident than I've ever been. Excited to start the season-absolutely. It's been a crazy, busy off season. Been a lot going on. Haven't had much time off.
"I think now that the season starts, it's kind of set in even more what we did last year, how incredible it was, how much it means to us all. Just getting to talk about it in the questions, the congrats, I mean, it's all just still coming. It's been pretty amazing."
Indeed, Truex can be forgiven for wanting to relive a remarkable year. He dominated NASCAR's new stage racing format, won a series-best eight races, led a series-best 2,253 laps and capped off the season by winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway to secure the title.
The rest of the garage remembers clearly how dominant he was.
"I feel like the same person, but when I come to the track, I get a little more respect," said Truex during the day-long media event in advance of Sunday's Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX). "I definitely feel that. That's always a good thing."
Barely a week ago, Truex's long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, completed her second round of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.
"She's doing good," Truex said. "Feeling great. Happy for her she can start getting back to normal life. She's starting to feel pretty good again already. It was Tuesday, so usually by Friday or Saturday she's feeling a little under the weather.
"Feeling pretty good yesterday and last night. Just nice to see her get back to normal life, not having to think about in three weeks she's going to have to take drugs again, feel like crap."
Pollex was first diagnosed with cancer in 2014, Truex's first season with Denver, Colo.-based Furniture Row Racing. Not until the end of the 2015 season, when he was paired with crew chief Cole Pearn, did Truex begin to realize the team's potential-or his own.
In 2016, Truex led more than 100 laps in eight different races, including a record 392 of 400 laps in a dominating victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but hard luck kept him out of Victory Lane more often than he would have liked. Yes, Truex won four times, then a career-best, but he failed to duplicate his 2015 advancement to the Championship 4 race at Homestead.
Still, Truex isn't sure he needed the disappointments of 2016 to help prepare him for his title run a year later.
"I think any time you have to deal with disappointment-things don't go the way you expected them to or thought they would or should-it's a tough deal," Truex said. "I don't think it's a bad thing to have to go through those things, figure out how to come out on the other side of them stronger.
"I don't know. I felt like we were a great team in '16. Things didn't go our way. I would say we were a better team in '17. That's probably the reason why."
Though the 2017 championship is the pinnacle of Truex's career so far, he feels his No. 78 Toyota team is capable of more-even with the stats he accumulated last year.
"It's pretty crazy to look at the numbers, honestly," Truex said. "It's pretty ridiculous. It's going to be tough to beat. It's going to be tough to match that, for sure. I think we can do it. We're up for that challenge. Really feel like we could have won 10 or 12 races if things would have gone a little different.
"I think our focus is starting the season off here, figure out where we're at, go from there. I've got a lot of confidence in my team that we can still continue to do some great things. Certainly won't be happy unless we do."
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---