NASCAR & Auto Racing

No longer besieged by bad luck, Martin Truex Jr. relishes Sprint Cup rise

Martin Truex Jr., who will race in Saturday’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway, went through some tough times to get to his place among Sprint Cup’s leading drivers.
Martin Truex Jr., who will race in Saturday’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway, went through some tough times to get to his place among Sprint Cup’s leading drivers.

Three years ago, nothing foretold that Martin Truex Jr. would drive to the cusp of a championship last fall, when he reached Homestead-Miami Speedway as one of the final four drivers alive in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In fact, September 2013 was a particularly dark time for Truex.

First, he lost his spot in that season’s Chase field after NASCAR determined that his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates manipulated the results at Richmond International Raceway to land him a wild-card spot.

Truex lost his job a month later when Michael Waltrip Racing — which lost the primary sponsor for Truex’s ride, Napa Auto Parts, in the fallout from the scandal — downsized from three cars to two.

These days, Truex is riding high. He’s ninth in the Sprint Cup drivers’ point standings and seems to be a title threat again despite a manufacturer’s switch during the offseason.

That didn’t seem possible during the fall of 2013 when Truex simply felt fortunate to land on his feet with Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team based in Denver that needed a driver after Kurt Busch’s defection to Stewart-Haas Racing.

“Before I got the call from Furniture Row (Racing), I didn’t even know if I’d have a job in 2014, so it was a crazy time in my life,” Truex said. “At that point, that was really my only opportunity. Even if I was like, ‘I don’t know how this team is going to be,’ I was probably going to do it.”

Things would get worse for Truex, 36, before they got better.

On the track, 2014 was a disaster, including a career-worst 24th-place finish in the Cup standings.

Truex led one lap — No. 163 during the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway — during the entire 36-race season and managed only five top-10 finishes.

Even worse, Truex’s girlfriend of nine years, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed in August 2014 with Stage III ovarian cancer.

“That was the bottom,” Truex said. “But, honestly, there’s a lot of people who go through a whole lot worse than that. We stayed strong through it all, Sherry and I both, and we’re stronger people today because we went through those things.”

Truex, who won back-to-back titles in what’s now the Xfinity Series during 2004-05, showed that strength in 2015.

He became the first driver since Richard Petty in 1969 to finish in the top 10 during 14 of the season’s first 15 races, including a win Pocono Raceway that locked him into the Chase for the third time in his career and the first since 2012.

It also marked a turning point for Furniture Row Racing.

Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, has worked for the team in six of the last seven Cup seasons, but contending for the series crown wasn’t always a realistic goal for the No. 78 team.

“We were focused on the task at hand, which was to get the team to that next level,” said Pearn, who took over as Truex’s crew chief before the 2015 season. “That’s what we’ve done as we’ve grown as a company. If 2013 (with Busch) was a breakout year for us and 2014 was a rough one, last year definitely put us on that level of being able to win a championship.”

Despite that success, 2016 brought an entirely new and potentially overwhelming challenge when Furniture Row switched manufacturers from Chevrolet to Toyota, agreeing to a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and getting their engines from Toyota Racing Development.

“Literally, the day after Homestead, (my team) took everything we had and just set it aside,” Truex said. “I mean everything is new to us, so hats off to them. They did an excellent job transitioning.”

Nothing about it was easy, especially for Pearn and the other team engineers.

“A lot of times, it was just a matter of making it to the racetrack in the early going this season,” Pearn said. “To run as well as we have, even though we haven’t necessarily closed the deal, we feel like we’re finally just now getting our head above water.”

It was a gamble given the team’s success in 2015, but now seems like a stroke of genius for Furniture Row team owner Barney Visser, considering the success Joe Gibbs Racing team’s displayed with new lower-downforce package NASCAR is running this season.

“A lot of racing’s about timing, being in the right place at the right time …,” Truex said. “I feel like I’ve always been in the wrong place at the wrong time until the last two years. Things have all just come together. … I feel super lucky, very fortunate to be in the position I’m in right now.”

Truex said he’s been embraced by the Joe Gibbs Racing crew — including Carl Edwards along with reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch, 2013 Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin — and feels like a fifth team member.

While he’s still searching for the season’s first win, Truex was the runner-up at the Daytona 500 by 0.01 seconds and boasts four top-10 finishes.

A trip to Victory Lane doesn’t seem far off and he’s been close before at Kansas Speedway, where the Sprint Cup Series takes the green flag at 6:30 p.m. Saturday under the lights for the Go Bowling 400.

Truex has led a shade under 9 percent of the laps he’s run there — 346 of 3,849 laps — which is far and away his best percentage for any NASCAR track.

During the last eight Cup races at Kansas Speedway, Truex has been the runner-up twice and owns five top-10 finishes, including four in the top five.

“For some reason, I’ve always run well there,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. Even going into years when maybe we didn’t have the best cars or we weren’t consistently running that well, it seems like we could always go to Kansas and find a way to run good. Certain drivers have tracks like that. It’s hard to explain and hard to put your finger on, but, because of that, I always enjoy going to it each time.”

Meanwhile, Pollex’s cancer is in remission and she’s back to her usual busy schedule.

“I still can’t keep up with her, so it’s good,” Truex said.

His foundation’s Seventh Annual Catwalk for a Cause, a pediatric cancer fundraiser that was started in 2010 and benefits the Levine Children’s Center Hospital in Charlotte, is set for May 18.

Around a dozen young cancer patients participate in the fashion show each year, strutting down the runway before a star-studded NASCAR audience — often accompanied by a Sprint Cup driver.

“It’s bigger than we could ever have imagined,” Truex said. “It’s gotten so big and we’re so blessed. It’s just amazing to see what the kids do and what it does for them. That’s really the coolest part about it.”

It keeps things in perspective for Truex, whose career and personal struggles in 2013 seem like distant rain clouds now.

“It wasn’t fun at the time, but I don’t think either one of us would change those things now,” Truex said. “It makes you who you are. The battles make the triumphs that much more special.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer