Denial, acceptance: Ways for Martin Truex to handle Daytona loss
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Watch the video. As Michael Jordan drains that miraculous, game-winning jump shot in the 1991 NBA playoffs, Craig Ehlo collapses in heartbroken disbelief. As Malcolm Butler claims a Super Bowl-winning interception, Ricardo Lockette grasps at air. For every exultant victor, there’s a heartbroken loser. And it’s tough to imagine a loss more heartbreaking than the one Martin Truex Jr. suffered at Sunday’s Daytona 500.
If there’s a bright side, though, the club Truex just joined can give him tips on how to deal with seeing this loss for … well, for the rest of his life.
Truex had run in second place for most of the last half of the race, first to Denny Hamlin and then to Matt Kenseth. But in the last few yards of the race, as Hamlin pulled off the best pass in recent NASCAR history and shuffled Kenseth back into the pack, Truex found himself in the lead, right there, right-freaking-there, just a few yards away from winning the Daytona 500. The finish line was a couple car-lengths away, and a Truex win—after all that he and his loved ones had suffered—would have been one of the best sports stories of the year.
Would have been.
Hamlin, on a rail, just barely slid past Truex, winning by one-one hundredth of a second. Unfortunately for Truex, the award for being the closest loser in the Daytona 500 is pretty much the same award you got for watching the closest finish in Daytona history.
“Going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, I suppose, the rest of my life,” Truex said. “I remember when it happened to Mark Martin [who lost a similarly narrow finish to Kevin Harvick in 2007] … I have a feeling I’m going to have to see that same thing for a long time.”
When Truex finally begins to process the madness of Sunday, he’ll have different routes to follow. Martin, Ehlo and Lockette all dealt with their starring roles on the wrong side of history in very different ways.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Martin told Yahoo Sports in 2012. “None. Why should it? … I have not lost one ounce of sleep over it, other than when I missed it by 3 feet in 2007.”
For Martin, the bigger picture was far more important than the momentary agony. “I figure I’m darn lucky to have been able to be in this sport, stumble around and win a few things. I’m not owed anything,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to win a few races. You don’t get to choose which ones they are.”
Writing in the Players Tribune just months after the Super Bowl loss, he was much less glib than Martin. “I can’t watch the film,” he wrote. “I absolutely can’t stand to see it. People have told me it was the perfect interception. People have told me there’s a camera angle where it looks like I’m about to walk right into the end zone. People have told me all sorts of things about the last play of Super Bowl XLIX. I wouldn’t know. Whenever it comes on, I turn away.”Lockette, the Seattle Seahawks wide receiver, saw the Patriots literally snatch a Super Bowl from his grasp.
Ehlo, immortalized on film and posters as the most broken victim of Michael Jordan’s relentless will, went through his own journey from despair to annoyance to acceptance. “The first four or five years after it happened, it was, like, enough, let’s move on,” Ehlo told the Seattle Times in 2015. “I got tired of seeing it and people saying it. But after awhile, I realized it was the situation every athlete wants to be in, my signature moment. I just decided, OK, let me just ride this pony.”
It’ll be awhile before Truex gets to that point, but even in the first minutes after the loss, he’d retained some perspective. “You’d rather get beat by a few inches than a few feet, absolutely,” he said Sunday night. “I’m fine. I’m proud of what we did. Beats the hell out of what we did earlier in the week, getting crashed every race in the last lap … Sometimes you just come up a little short.”
The short inches between victory and defeat spread instantly to a chasm. As Truex sat in the Daytona infield media center, answering every question with a resigned, weary smile, Denny Hamlin celebrated in victory lane, spraying champagne and grinning in a broadcast that was very much within Truex’s line of sight. He answered every question, then stood up, donned his sunglasses, and left the media center as fast as he could without running.
Off in the distance in one direction, Hamlin continued to celebrate, confetti sticking to the No. 11 car that will remain here at Daytona for the next year to honor Hamlin’s achievement. Off in the other, the planes of Truex’s fellow drivers were taking off.
Truex headed in that direction, walking past a half-dozen fans calling his name. He slapped hands with each of them, accepted a couple congratulations from security guards, then walked across the already-empty garage. He was alone save for his PR rep … and, of course, his own thoughts. It’ll be a long time before the memory of this exhilarating, heartbreaking day fades.
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