Make no bones about it: Martin Truex Jr. and his seven-year NASCAR career were left for dead. Approaching the end of the 2013 season, Truex was a free agent, missing the Chase and chasing a future that appeared uncertain. He was abandoned in September at Richmond International Raceway the second his Michael Waltrip Racing organization chose to abandon the concept of NASCAR rules.
In that race, Clint Bowyer intentionally spun, causing a caution whose intent was to sneak Truex into the NASCAR playoffs. But in the end, Truex was the victim, shut out in a scandal that rocked NASCAR nation. MWR was fined $300,000, the team’s executive vice president (Ty Norris) was suspended and sponsor NAPA bolted from the team.
NASCAR CEO Brian France added Jeff Gordon into the postseason Chase, an unprecedented move, but Truex was left sitting on the sidelines. Without a sponsor for his car, MWR couldn’t re-sign him, and the driver’s career was at a crossroads.
“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,” Truex said of his 2013 struggle. “At least competitively.”
“I didn’t know of any rides available, didn’t know of any opportunities at that point in time. I knew it was definitely going to be a tough road.”
Enter Furniture Row Racing. Its main driver, Kurt Busch, chose a 2014 job at Stewart-Haas Racing despite a comeback year at the No. 78. Busch brought the team into the postseason, setting career bests for the Barney Visser-owned car in top fives (11) and top 10s (16). But the temptation for top-tier equipment at SHR was too much, leaving the single-car team at a crossroads.
On paper, it seemed like Truex and Visser were the perfect match. Both had roughly the same amount of time in the Cup Series with the same level of underachieving results. Truex, handpicked by Dale Earnhardt Jr., had won only twice despite prime opportunities at MWR and Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Visser had won just once, a 2011 Southern 500 gamble with Regan Smith, and spent eight years funding the team out of his own pocket.
Both had the drive and desire for success. Truex signed for 2014 and beyond, and both parties pledged to work their hardest to get there.
The next year would be a fairy tale made in heaven, right? Not exactly. A last-place finish in the Daytona 500 was an ominous sign of what was to come; one top-five finish and one lap led later, a 24th-place finish in the final standings made Truex an afterthought at the Cup Series level. Add in girlfriend Sherry Pollex’s ovarian cancer diagnosis and it felt like the world was crashing down.
Said the driver succinctly after hoisting the championship trophy this November: “2014 sucked.”
“They’d come off their best year,” he added. “All they changed was the driver, until they found out that they changed the chassis, and like something is not right, it’s doing this, it’s doing that, and we couldn’t find it. It was like shooting at a target that just was moving all over the place, you know. We had no consistency. We had nothing.”
But there was a bright spot in the midst of despair. Cole Pearn, FRR’s lead team engineer, was quietly figuring out how to fix the problem, to build better racecars. At Kansas Speedway that fall, the team ran fast together, running fourth for its lone top-five finish of the year. It was a new set of ideas, led by Pearn, that left everyone on the team believing.
That November, the No. 78 got reshuffled. Crew chief Todd Berrier was out and Pearn was in.
“I remember Cole specifically, like, looking at me and having this look like, damn, I think this guy actually knows what he’s talking about,” Truex said. “That was it right there. That was like the switch that flipped, and me and him could see eye to eye, and he bought into what I was saying, I bought into what he was saying, and when they made him the crew chief in 2015, he went from being this guy behind the scenes that was really quiet to, ‘this is my team, I’m going to run it the way I think I need to,’ and the rest is history.”
It’s the type of high praise the soft-spoken Pearn deflects. The mechanic knows he can only do so much; at some point, the driver has to take the setup and win with it.
“I continue to believe every day that [Truex’s] talent level, and a lot of times we get a lot of credit as a team because maybe in his career he didn’t have the success he’s had since we’ve been together,” he said. “I think that bodes for us getting a lot of the praise. But he’s a champion.”
And so the two evolved together. It was a three-year process, a slow climb from bottom to top. In 2015, Truex made the playoffs, won for the first time in two years and snuck into the Championship 4. The duo struggled at Homestead-Miami Speedway, finishing last of the title contenders, but that experience would serve them well down the road.
The following year, a switch to Toyota aligned them with powerful Joe Gibbs Racing and the resources of a multi-car giant. While Chevy was great, JGR offered reigning champion Kyle Busch and the best-performing organization in the sport. It’s no wonder 2016 led to career highs in wins for Truex (four), laps led (1,809) and poles (five). While the team fell short of Homestead, the stage for a championship run was set.
But no one expected the dominance of 2017. Truex simply whipped the field from start to finish, earning eight victories and a series-leading 26 top-10 finishes. His average start of 6.8 also led the Cup Series, while his 2,253 laps led topped the charts a second straight year. He won seven times on NASCAR’s cookie-cutter intermediate tracks, including the Homestead finale, and never ran lower than eighth.
This little team from Colorado didn’t just slay Goliath — it ran him over like a monster truck. But there were challenges, too. As the season finale unfolded, the No. 78 team had its back against the wall. Kyle Busch had a better fuel strategy and then, despite the yellows working against him, a faster car. Strategy left Truex out in front, but he’d have to fend off one of the most aggressive drivers in the sport.
“This was not an easy one for us,” said Pearn. “Really, he put it on his shoulders there because we were out of ideas. He put it on his shoulders and made it happen.”
And that’s what went down. Truex, after letting Busch catch him, wouldn’t let the No. 18 pass him. Digging deep, he found a line and the speed that kept his Chevy out in front when it mattered most.
“Before 2014, I know I couldn’t have,” Truex said. “I would have been probably spun out a bit, nervous as all hell. But tonight I was like, OK, just got to find something. Just got to find a little bit. And I found it, and it was like, OK, here we go, I’ve got this. Start clicking them off, and we got to about five to go, and I was like, this is working pretty good. Just don’t screw up, dummy.”
He didn’t. The checkered flag flew, and suddenly Truex was champion. The unlikeliest title run since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 had come to pass. As he exited the car, girlfriend Pollex was there, her own cancer battle a reminder of the personal struggles for both of them.
“That’s why you never give up,” she said.
Truex never did. Neither did Pearn, who lost his best friend during the season; nor did the organization when it lost a crew member, Jim Watson, to a heart attack at 55. Visser wound up watching the championship from a hospital bed after suffering his own heart problems.
But Truex’s story of perseverance is extra special. He had every reason to give up multiple times through a journey that never seemed like it was going to quite pan out. Nice guys aren’t supposed to finish first.
But he fought and fought and fought. And finally won.
“He is a professional and a gentleman and just a perfect friend,” Earnhardt said at Homestead. “We’ve been pals a long, long time. I am so proud of him. He’s just a really good guy, very easy to relate to, easy to talk to. And everything that he’s went through as a driver, and beyond that, everything he’s went through in his personal life, everything Sherry has went through, the whole sport has been behind them for so long and supported them for so long, but it’s just great.”
“There is something to be said about luck and fate and putting yourself in the right position and being a good person,” said Truex. “I believe that that’s what we’ve seen here.”