CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It’s never come easy for Martin Truex Jr., a journeyman driver who has never found the success he hoped to have at NASCAR’s highest level.
Oh, it was fun a decade ago when a friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. led to a full-time ride in NASCAR’s second-tier series. Driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., Truex won 12 races in two years and back-to-back championships in what’s now called the Xfinity Series.
It earned him a promotion to the big leagues with DEI — just about the same time the organization was heading into a downward spiral. He headed into that 2006 season with high hopes, but nothing materialized through four bumpy seasons that saw Earnhardt flee his late father’s team and DEI needing a merger with Chip Ganassi to keep its doors open.
Truex never publicly complained. He quietly went about his business and tried to do his job to the best of his ability.
That professionalism got him to Michael Waltrip Racing, where he faced a fair share of speedbumps but seemed to have turned a corner with a strong summer that qualified him for NASCAR’s championship with a big performance in the final qualifying race.
And then it was gone.
Truex found himself the involuntary participant in a cheating scandal that rocked NASCAR on the eve of its 10-race championship series. NASCAR found that MWR used its two other cars to manipulate the finish of the race to ensure Truex earned a spot in the Chase field.
As punishment to MWR, Truex was kicked out of the Chase. His sponsor bailed soon after, and MWR had to let Truex go in a wave of layoffs after the scandal decimated the organization. On the cusp of a turnaround one minute, out of a job the next.
That was nothing compared with what came next.
Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex were moving toward starting a family when Pollex was diagnosed last year with ovarian cancer. Her fight for her life has made everything on the track seem trivial for Truex.
It was Pollex who picked Truex up after the cheating scandal, helped him see there would be another chance for him at Furniture Row Racing. Truex tried hard to believe her.
“I just knew it was going to take a lot of work. I knew it was going to be a tough road to get back,” he said.
Truex had faith that Furniture Row, coming off a Chase berth in 2013 with Kurt Busch, would be a good home. But he had an awful year on the track and any hope of picking up where he’d left off at MWR was dashed.
“It was just miserable,” he said. “Nothing went our way, nothing. We had no speed. We couldn’t make the cars work, they felt terrible to me.”
Then came Pollex’s diagnosis and Truex had to take stock of his situation.
“It was like, ‘This is when you show people what you’re made of,'” he said. “She showed me what she was made of, and I was like, ‘Wow, if she can do that, I can do this. This is easy.'”
This roller-coaster journey the past 20 months took another turn Sunday when Truex won for the first time since 2013. His victory at Pocono Raceway was a popular one in that drivers who respect Truex and Pollex, who admire the fight they’ve shown, were eager to congratulate them both.
The couple was ecstatic. Pollex, who had a chemotherapy treatment just six days earlier, posted jubilant photos on social media. Truex called it the biggest win of his career.
It was real emotion shown from a team that has shown all season long it is a true contender and from a driver who had stopped expecting good things to happen to him.
Truex knew the No. 78 team was good enough to win, that new crew chief Cole Pearn had locked in on something that made Truex able to lead laps every week and mix it up with the regular contenders. It was only a matter of time before the team got its first win, even if Truex had tempered his expectations.
“Throughout my career, I’ve kind of got used to the disappointment, honestly,” he said.
There was no disappointment on Sunday, especially not from the drivers Truex beat. He was visited in victory lane by several, and everyone seemed touched to see Truex and Pollex celebrate.
It is those post-race moments that will be remembered most.
“There’s going to come a time when where you finish in races doesn’t matter,” Truex said. “What’s going to matter is the kind of the legacy you leave and how people look at the person that you are. It’s really cool, especially after the way the last year-and-a-half or so has gone for me, up until this year, I think that people kind of got a little bit of an insight into what I’m made of and what kind of person I am.”
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