The news came a little after 11 p.m. on Saturday, as out of the-blue as it was disheartening.
“Cole (Pearn) texted me at like 11:15 or something and said, ‘I’m at the hospital,’ ” Martin Truex Jr. said of the message from his crew chief. Then the rest of the text.
“‘Jim just had a heart attack, and they lost him.’”
The backstory: James “Jim” Watson and other members of the Furniture Row Racing crew, who works on Truex’s car and Erik Jones’ No. 77, had been out go-karting Saturday evening. Watson sent a text to his wife, telling her how much fun he was having with the group.
And then, out of nowhere, he keeled over. He was rushed to the hospital, but to no avail. Watson was pronounced dead of a heart attack early Sunday morning, half a day before Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400. He was 55.
The rest of the crew was at the hospital too, awaiting the news they hoped would not come into the early hours of the morning. When there was nothing else they could do, they finally left.
“We all kind of met back at the hotel and just hugged each other,” Pearn said. “I mean, there’s nothing you really can say.”
Truex said after the race Sunday that he didn’t know Watson as well as the rest of the crew, but it was obvious how shaken up everyone was Sunday morning. The team had already advanced to the next round of the playoffs, so a win wasn’t necessary from a racing standpoint.
Sunday’s mantra, then, was simple – win this one for Jim.
At first, it didn’t appear as if that would materialize. Truex started on the pole, which should have given him a massive advantage, but was assessed a penalty early that sent him back through pit road and cost him spots. Still his speed kept him in contention, and midway through the race, he was in a position to surge to the front.
So he did, as he has all season long, and charged to the front of the pack. He even avoided the massive pileup on Lap 199 that took out so many drivers, including Matt Kenseth. Then he proceeded to pull away, leading 91 laps en route to his seventh win this season, the most of any driver. It’s also the most races a driver has won in a single season since 2013.
After the race, Truex made his way to Victory Lane, just like he had six times before this season, only this time the stage was a little more crowded than normal. That’s because the entire Furniture Row Racing crew, both Truex’s group and Jones’, had come to celebrate together.
To celebrate Watson together.
There’s no replacing a lost life, but neither is there replacing a legacy. Watson’s, at least for the moment, is this: that he was a vital crew member on the best race team this season; that he is survived by a wife and a daughter; that in his final moments, he was happy, enjoying life and all it had to offer.
Oh, and one more thing.
“Today the best we could do was win for him in his honor,” Truex said. “And we did it.”