Two years ago, Martin Truex Jr.’s once promising NASCAR career was in jeopardy. He lost his ride with Michael Waltrip Racing after it was publicized that two other drivers on the team had tanked a race to help him qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Truex had to scramble to find a ride even though he had a solid middle-of-the-pack record – 100 top-10 finishes – and an enthusiastic fan base.
But even though the evidence indicated he was not in on the plot, he was tainted, at least in the eyes of the large corporations that sponsor championship stock-car teams. There was no living down being booted from the Chase, which determines the NASCAR championship. He had to leave Waltrip because he lost his sponsor, and it wasn’t easy to procure another.
The best seat he could find was with a fledging little team from Furniture Row in Denver. He went from a three-driver team with Waltrip to being a lone driver. Last year was his worst in eight years. He ranked 24th on the circuit and did not lead a single lap until Talladega in October.
And that wasn’t even his biggest problem.
Shelly Pollex, his girlfriend of 10 years, was diagnosed last August with Stage III ovarian cancer, a disease that afflicts about 22,000 Americans annually.
She had accompanied him to his races and helped run the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation, whose primary purpose is helping families with children suffering from cancer. The charity has been well supported by NASCAR drivers.
So while he struggled through the NASCAR season, Shelly endured surgery and chemotherapy. It was encouraging that she has been back in attendance at Martin’s races and looks healthy.
“The last year and a half has made me a better person,” Truex said. “It’s made me understand life a lot more and help me appreciate the things I do have a lot more. . . . All the stuff I’ve been mad about before and thought was a big deal, it was nothing.”
With more control of his temper, Truex, 34, is a better driver as the team around him also matures. Cole Pearn is in his first season as a NASCAR crew chief, and he’s made the occasional rookie error, miscalculating fuel economy that may have cost a win or two. But Pearn and Truex – and the rest of the tiny crew — have done a remarkable job of keeping the No. 78 Chevrolet running fast and being constantly in position to win.
Martin finished third in the rain-shortened Quicken Loans 400 on Sunday after winning at Pocono the previous week. The victory at Pocono broke a 69-race losing streak by Truex and secured a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After doing his celebratory donuts in victory lane, he lifted Sherry into the air and kissed her. He said she continues to undergo chemotherapy once a month but that it’s “precautionary,” that cancer has not reappeared.
His victory brought a stream of well-wishers to Furniture Row.
Kevin Harvick, defending NASCAR champion who’s one of four full-time drivers for Stewart-Haas Racing, finished second at Pocono and said, “I’m very happy for Martin. I know he and Sherry have gone through a lot. If you’re going to lose to someone, that’s a great person to lose to.”
Another NASCAR star, Jimmie Johnson, said, “He’s had more to overcome, personally and professionally, than probably anyone sitting in a seat right now. And for him to still walk into the garage every week with a smile on his face, climb into the car, put in the effort and be the great guy he is, I think speaks volumes. A very popular win for him.”
I for one take a special interest in Martin’s ascendance, as we appear to have a common 17th-century ancestor from New York. But I think this is the motorsports feelgood story of the year regardless of the name.
Sunday’s third place finish at Michigan was Truex’s 14th top-10 finish in 15 races this year. That feat was last accomplished by Richard Petty in 1969.
“The King is pretty special,” Truex said. “We’ve got a team that works well together, even though that might not fit the profile of some of the bigger teams.”
It’s almost unheard-of in racing, whether IndyCar, stock cars or Formula One, for a little team to be competitive with the big ones. And yet, Truex trails only Harvick – 576-561– in this season’s point standings.
Truex does not see this year as a fluke. “In the right situation,” he said, “I can be the best out there. I have a great team right now and I plan to take advantage of it.”
Drew Sharp, motorsports columnist for the Detroit Free Press, called Truex “something of an industry folk hero.”
Not that this is truly a rags-to-riches story. Cousin Martin has done rather well being on the fringe of NASCAR stardom. He’s built a net worth said to be upwards of $30 million.
The blessings are likely to continue. Losing the ride with Waltrip turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. That team is winless since the Chase scandal, and the No. 1 driver, Clint Bowyer, has complained that his car isn’t fast enough to compete.
Meanwhile, Furniture Row Racing is trending upward, with increased funding on the way, one way or the other. Joe Garone, general manager of FRR, said, “We need more resources,” meaning Chevrolet must find more money for Truex, whose contract expires at the end of the year.
If General Motors doesn’t raise its stakes, Furniture Row intends to do business with Ford or Toyota. A vagabond two years ago, Martin Truex Jr., according to Sharp, is about to be the hottest free agent in his sport.
Click here for Link to Drew Sharp’s profile on Martin Truex Jr. in the Detroit Free Press.