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NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. maintains happiness while building momentum

Quicken Loans 400 | Michigan International Speedway | Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: TNT

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Drew Hallowell - Getty Images
Martin Truex Jr. looks on in the garage area during practice for the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks on May 31 in Dover, Del.

BROOKLYN, Mich. Given how last season ended and this season began no one would blame Martin Truex Jr. for being bitter.

Then why is he so happy?

Perhaps because he’s been through tough times before in his NASCAR career and always managed to come out bruised but still ahead of the game.

Or perhaps it’s because he appreciates the opportunity he still has to be racing in the Sprint Cup Series, knowing he could easily be “working on a clam boat making $400 a week.”

It’s been nearly a year since Truex, 34, won his most recent Cup race and seven months since he lost the ride at Michael Waltrip Racing that got him to Victory Lane.

Much has changed for him, including a new home this season at Furniture Row Racing. One thing hasn’t – his appreciation of where he is and where he’s been.

“I’ve had a rough career – I’ve had a lot of bad things happen in my career, as far as teams falling apart and what happened last year and rough luck,” said Truex, who will start 16th in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

“At the end of the day, I love what I do and I am very lucky to get to do what I do. I understand that it could be a lot worse than even what it was last year.

“Sometimes people forget that and take this series or lifestyle or job that we get to do for granted. I’m not going to do that.”

After earning a surprise victory on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., last June, Truex was well on his way to one of the best seasons of his Cup career and appeared to have earned a spot in the Chase.

However, MWR officials were caught by NASCAR attempting to orchestrate the outcome of the September race at Richmond, Va. (which set the Chase field). Truex’s No. 56 team was booted from the Chase and in the aftermath of the scandal, the team’s sponsor decided to depart at season’s end.

Without the necessary funding for a full-time ride in 2014, MWR had no choice but to let Truex go.

“That late in the season they weren’t going to run a car without the money. That’s how it works,” Truex said. “I was really scared because it was so late in the season. Generally, there are not good, competitive rides available that late in the year.”

However, Kurt Busch, who helped guide the fledgling Furniture Row Racing team into the Chase, announced he would be driving for a new team at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. FRR, a single-car team based in Denver, then turned to Truex.

The new pairing got off to a rough start this season, with Truex finishing better than 21st only once in the first six races.

“There was a transition for these guys in learning what I needed, what I liked, what I want. I think there was a bigger transition for the team, though, and that was in the rules package,” Truex said.

“I honestly feel like as a group we started off a little behind. We had some ideas of what we thought were going to work and they didn’t work. We kind of chased our tail for a while.”

Lately there have been signs the organization may be turning the corner.

Truex finished 10th at Richmond in late April and ran in the top 10 virtually the entire race at Charlotte last month until a broken axle sidelined him with 11 of 400 laps remaining.

“It really was night and day how well he ran at Charlotte,” said Furniture Row Racing general manager Joe Garone. “Although we broke, we had speed and it’s carried from race to race ever since.

“It takes time. It took probably 12 races with Kurt (Busch) before we were running on all eight cylinders.”

Finishes of sixth at Dover, Del., and ninth at Pocono (Pa.) the past two races have given the team its first consecutive top-10 finishes of the year.

“We’re still working on getting more speed in our cars and getting more consistent and things like that but I really feel like we’re going in the right direction,” Truex said.

A golden opportunity awaits next weekend when the series returns to Sonoma. A win would certainly boost the confidence of Truex and his team, but thanks to NASCAR’s new Chase format this season, a victory could all-but ensure a chance to compete for the championship.

“We put a lot of effort into every race we go to,” Garone said, “but we’re counting Sonoma as one of the special ones, for sure.”

The timing certainly could not be better.

“I think I’m at a turning point. I’m not really where I want to be in my career but lately it’s been OK,” Truex said. “We have a bunch of guys on this team who have won races and they came close last season with Kurt but I’d like to be that difference maker for them.

“I’d like to be the guy that takes them to Victory Lane for the first time.”

Utter: (704) 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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