Columns & Blogs

NASCAR Chase finale could be something special for Martin Truex Jr.

Martin Truex Jr., shown in a file photo, is the underdog in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale, but he has a chance to win a championship for a single-car team.
Martin Truex Jr., shown in a file photo, is the underdog in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finale, but he has a chance to win a championship for a single-car team. AP

Martin Truex Jr. is a good underdog this week because he doesn’t resent being called an underdog. He doesn’t loudly announce that he will use manufactured disrespect as motivation. Additional motivation is not required.

Truex’s Furniture Row team is headquartered in Denver, Colo., the only NASCAR team west of the Mississippi. En route from Denver to Homestead-Miami Speedway this week, his hauler was caught in a snowstorm. The truck spent Tuesday night in a Walmart parking lot, then embarked on the 32-hour drive the next day.

Such adventures happen only to underdogs. If the hauler had been Jeff Gordon’s, it would have parked in front of Nordstrom.

Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are favored to win the Sprint Cup championship Sunday at the Ford EcoBoost 400. Truex is not. He’s the outsider, the only Sprint Cup driver from New Jersey.

The other teams have four cars, and Truex’s team has one. A one-car team last won the championship in 1994, with Dale Earnhardt as the driver.

Kevin Harvick won the championship last season, Gordon has won four championships, and Kyle Busch this season won four races in five weeks.

Truex has entered 368 races and won three. His best Sprint Cup season finish had been 11th. His crew chief is in his first season.

Yet a driver can no more stumble into Sprint Cup’s Final Four than an NFL football team can stumble into a record of 9-0.

“We want this more than anything right now,” says Truex, 35. “It’s all or nothing. I mean, this is the only thing that matters. You know, I don’t know if, based on past history, just the things that I’ve been through, you never know when you’re going to get an opportunity like this again.”

Truex means that the race is the only thing that matters once it begins. About what he’s been through; his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer. It’s in remission now, and she has three chemotherapy sessions remaining. She and Truex started a foundation in 2007 that focuses on ovarian research and childhood cancer, and she’ll be at Homestead-Miami Sunday.

“The things that happened last year with Sherry getting diagnosed with cancer, the foundation we have, the kids we met, just have a different perspective on things,” says Truex. “Racing is important, it’s a big part of my life, but it’s not the only thing that matters. It’s been pretty remarkable the way she’s went through everything, really inspiring to me.”

In 2013, Truex drove for Michael Waltrip Racing, which was caught manipulating the outcome of a race. Truex lost his place in the Chase and, after the season, his job.

He drove for Furniture Row last season, and finished 24th in the Cup standings. After the season, the team tested in California. Truex got out of the car and said, “Hey, we got something special now.”

They still do.

“We’re coming into this on the offense,” Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone says of Sunday’s race.

I like Garone right away. Representatives of the other contending teams have media around them. Garone is alone. I ask how he’d describe Truex to a friend.

“I’d describe him as being genuine,” Garone says. “He’ll take the time to speak with you. He doesn’t wear his emotion on his sleeve, but he’s really competitive. I don’t know what else to say about him. That’s the behind the scenes Martin.”

How would you describe Truex as a driver?

“You see him on restarts, he’ll take some incredible chances,” says Garone. “But part of what’s gotten us here is him being smart and keeping emotions in check. And strategy, planning moves rather than taking chances when he didn’t have to.”

Homestead-Miami is Truex’s best track, a venue where he hasn’t finished worse than 11th since 2000. NASCAR has a formula similar to the NFL’s quarterback rating. Truex is rated highest at Homestead-Miami, followed by Kenseth, Gordon and Busch.

Truex had the fourth-fastest test time at Homestead-Miami Friday and the fastest of the drivers in the Chase.

Being an underdog means you’re not expected to win.

It doesn’t mean you won’t.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer