Over of the past three weeks, the
INDY'S resident NASCAR fanatic Mike V. has previewed his favorites to be this year's Cup Champion. On the occasion of this weekend's Great American Race, he makes his final pick and takes us on a sentimental journey with defending champion Martin Truex Jr. It's part 1 of the
INDY's Daytona 500 Preview Spectacular!
Often he chokes back tears during his post-race interviews in Victory Lane. He has a now-signature pause, a look into whatever is beyond the throngs of the exultant pit crew, familiar well-wishers, NASCAR hangers-on, scantily-clad Monster Energy drink girls, and whoever else populates the little circle that is drenched in beer, champagne, sticky energy drink, and rainbow-colored confetti. He finds Sherry if she’s at the race. He looks into the distance if she is back home undergoing treatment. He thanks his crew and his sponsors, he thanks his pit chief, he thanks Sherry. He spends his time talking about everyone else, never taking credit for what he did at the wheel of the eight-hundred-plus horsepower mechanized behemoth he helms every Sunday. He reminds the crowd, or maybe himself, of how lucky he is to do what he does for a living.
Nowadays, these are the sort of reveries one often reads about defending Monster Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. This was far from always the case. In his first decade as a top-flight race car driver, he racked up a meager three wins, despite his driving marquee equipment for hallmark teams. Always at or near the top on race day, the checkers—and the requisite burnouts and beer showers that follow a race winner on Sundays—seemed to always elude Truex Jr.
In 2013, in the midst of a career that in large part seemed a letdown, Truex took an ostensible step backward as he signed with a single car upstart. Committing to drive Furniture Row Racing’s 78 car, which, unlike every other team in NASCAR, was not based in or near Charlotte, Truex found himself behind the wheel of a ride that was an outlier both physically and culturally.
His first season with Furniture Row Racing was par for their course. A few ups. A few more downs. Nothing to write home about. Some days would end with a wreck, though most would just find him meandering across the finish line somewhere mid-pack.
It was during that season that Truex Jr.’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser insisted Truex take the remainder of the season off to be with his girlfriend, assuring him that his ride would be waiting for him at the start of the following year. Truex, presumably with Sherry’s blessing, didn’t miss a race. He finished the beleaguered season twenty-fourth in the overall standings.
And then something began to click. Many postulate that it was the pairing at the start of the 2015 season with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn, himself somewhat of an oddity as a Canadian in NASCAR’s decidedly Southern ranks. Or perhaps it was the clarity in knowing that not only was Sherry out of the woods for the time being, but that racing was just a job like any other. Whatever the impetus, Truex began to fulfill the promise he had first shown as a heralded young driver. He won a single race in 2015 but raced well enough each weekend to finish fourth overall in the standings.
His upward trend continued into 2016, where he won four races, one more than his career total to that point. Commentators and fans alike began to shower the little 78 team with theretofore unheard of attention as Truex led more laps than any other driver over the course of the season. His hopes for a first championship were derailed at Talladega Superspeedway’s Playoff Race, and Truex would finish the season outside of the top ten.
Twenty-seventeen was a different story for the little team from Denver, helmed by the crew chief from Canada and the wheelman from the Jersey Shore who spent as much time digging clams as a boy as he did racing cars.
Leading more laps, winning more stages, and taking the checkered flag more times than any other driver in the series, the 78 team was absolutely dominant and put together one the most storybook seasons NASCAR has yet seen.
In last season’s final race at Homestead-Miami, Truex somehow held off a much faster Kyle Busch, capping off his first championship victory with a win that for most of his career seemed like a dream that he would never realize.
And while the other teams in the garage might pick up on a cue here or there from the 78 team, I don’t see their winning ways waning anytime soon.
Over the course of last season, many experts posited that Pearn and Truex had figured something out that no other team yet had, crediting their season-long dominance to a knowledge of some hidden secret to stage racing.
This season will reveal quite the opposite. Pearn and Truex didn’t stumble upon some secret. Rather, they stumbled upon each other and have become arguably racing’s most perfect match.
What happens at Homestead is anyone’s guess, especially if Kyle Larson is in the mix
, as I predicted last week he will be. But just as they did last year, the 78 will lead the way in stage racing, racking up playoff points that’ll make them untouchable until Homestead-Miami. Truex will get the Superspeedway win that has thus far eluded him in his career and, come playoff time, it’ll be the 78 and everyone else.
With any luck, we’ll see Sherry sitting beside Pearn atop the black and red pit box every Sunday, patiently tracking the 78 as it rips around the myriad tracks it now somehow dominates. With any luck, Martin Truex Jr. will finally be able to focus completely on racing.
Perhaps it was that these three outcasts found a home in one another—Truex from the Jersey Shore, Pearn from Canada, and Furniture Row Racing from Denver. Perhaps it’s how they eschew restart speed for faster long runs, which is to say in racing vernacular, they win a lot of stages and are almost always fighting for a win.
Perhaps it’s his life with Sherry and their battle with her sickness. Perhaps he now realizes that racing is just a job like any other, that life happens off the track and, while what he does on the track matters, what happens off of it matters in a much more important way. Perhaps it’s something that we can’t even divine that has made the 78 team so blazingly fast, and often unstoppable.
Whatever it is, it’s working. And right now there isn’t much that can slow the 78 and Martin Truex Jr. down.