By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series focusing on why each of the Championship Four will end Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title in hand.
Martin Truex, Jr. enters Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the championship favorite, but there’s more to it than just his on track accolades this season.
Heading into the final race of the season, Truex is enjoying the best year of his career, with seven wins (half of his career total) coming this season, 18 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes, three poles, 2175 laps led, and an average finish of 9.7. All of which led him to the regular season title and paved the road to the Championship Four for him and his team.
“If I am the favorite, perfect, I like that,” said Truex. “I think it’s a better position to be in. I was the underdog before and finished fourth, so yeah, bring it on.
“I don’t think it’s any extra pressure at all…Definitely have a little bit of experience in this position, but just honestly excited about the opportunity. I feel we’re in a whole lot better spot as a team than we were the first time we had a shot at it. I have a lot of confidence in our team right now and what we’re doing. We’re going down to Miami and just have fun and do what we know how to do – the best job we possibly can and hopefully come out on top.”
The performance aspect is huge for Truex, especially in a winner take all race like Homestead, but there are bigger variables at play off the track that could play an even more integral part of his path to the championship.
Let’s start with his dismissal from the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing team at the end of 2013, leaving Truex without a ride and feeling like his career was over. But along came Furniture Row Racing, where Truex would start racing the following year.
“There was a night where I sat on the porch and thought there was a chance I may never race in the Cup Series again, at least competitively,” said Truex. “It was late in the season, found out I wasn’t going to have a sponsor, obviously, for the next year. I didn’t know of any rides available. I didn’t know anything — I didn’t know of any opportunities at that point in time, so I knew it was definitely going to be a tough road. But got fortunate that Barney Visser called and we were able to put that deal together.
It was just a matter of luck and timing to be honest that it all came together. Obviously the rest is history. Very fortunate.”
That first year with the team was dismal as they only managed one top-five finish and five top-10 finishes all year long and limped to a 24th place finish in points, the worst of Truex’s career as a full-time Cup Series driver.
Despite the slow start with the team, they never gave up and perservered through all the trials and tribulations that had come up to that point and were still to come, morphing into one of the powerhouse teams in the sport over the next three seasons. Truex made it all the way to the Championship Four in 2015, but fell short of the title and ended the year fourth in points.
That only served to embolden the team even further in their pursuit of greatness and it has certainly paid off. But there’s more to the story of what Truex and Furniture Row have had to go through to get to this point.
Back in his first year with the team, Truex’s longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which she is still bravely battling to this day. This season, the hits have just kept on coming, from crew chief Cole Pearn losing his best friend earlier in the year, to the team losing a valuable team member to a heart attack last month, and most recently with team owner Barney Visser having to undergo heart surgery and being forced to miss out on what may be the biggest day in his organization’s history.
“You know, I wish a lot of times we haven’t had to go through the things we’ve had to go through, obviously, but I think they just made us all a lot closer and pulled our team together even that much tighter,” said Pearn. “I think for us, when you’re grieving and having to go through some of the things we’ve gone through, it just leads you to kind of pounding into your work a little bit harder and kind of using that to take your mind off the other things.
“I think that creates a little bit of resolve and a little bit more focus for us, and just really want us to push to continue to close this thing out. I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll be able to look back and reflect on this kind of crazy year that it’s been, and hopefully we’re doing it with a lot of bright spots, as well.”
With everything in mind, the combination of the team’s tenacity on track combined with their heart and willingness to push through anything off the track will lead Truex and the No. 78 team straight to the championship stage where they can hoist the trophy at the end of the night.
Not to mention, it probably doesn’t hurt having a vast amount of support from the fans and fellow drivers in their back pocket. Just today, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who will be competing in his final race on Sunday, announced that he was “Team Martin” when it came to his support for one of the championship contending drivers.
“I am Team Martin for this weekend, for sure,” Earnhardt said. “He’s the guy. Me and Brad (Keselowski) are great friends. I love to see Brad do well. But, with what Martin…just as a driver…with what he’s been through, it would just be awesome to see him put his name on that trophy.
“We know about what Sherry (Pollex) has dealt with and how difficult that’s been on her and Martin; and how dedicated he has been to her. Martin is just a great guy. He has zero ego. I love spending time with him. We go hunting together, although we haven’t had much of a chance to do that because he’s been so busy winning races and being a championship contender. We just have a lot of great memories together. He slept on the couch when he first came down here. I let him stay in one of the bedrooms of the house for several months and then he moved into the house about 100 yards away inside the gate and lived with a buddy of mine. Then him and Sherry got close and they moved in together. We’ve just always been friends and as drivers, I think I’ve said this…it seems like I’ve said it every week, drivers have such big egos, all of us do. But Martin is not on that list. He just doesn’t abuse the opportunity and what the sport has provided him.
“I just think that says so much about his character as a person and a man. It is just really cool to know people like that and have people like that in your life. He is a great example to follow. He has impacted my life in a positive way with his character. I don’t know how you put into words what it would mean for him to win. I don’t know how you describe what that means. It is bigger than words. It would be popular amongst his peers and around the garage and the industry for sure because everybody knows what kind of person he is. I think that whole team has that reputation. Cole (Pearn, crew chief for Truex) sort of go hand-in-hand. They just get to work. There is no BS and they don’t talk loud. They just win races. Very easy to pull for them.”