Truex emerges as unlikely NASCAR championship contender


HOLLYWOOD, Fla. | Martin Truex waited at the dais as the three drivers he will race for a championship had achievements read that made them all seem fit to wear NASCAR’s crown.

Kevin Harvick, the defending Sprint Cup champion.

Jeff Gordon, the four-time series champion.

Kyle Busch, won four times in a five-race span to earn a championship berth.

And Truex?

He was simply billed as “hailing from New Jersey, driving for a team headquartered in Denver.”

That’s it.

With only three career wins in 368 races, Truex seems like the oddity in NASCAR’s finale in Florida on Sunday. The 35-year-old Truex, of Mayetta, New Jersey, drives for a one-car operation at Furniture Row Racing in Colorado’s capital, far removed from NASCAR’s North Carolina hub. He even has a rookie crew chief in Cole Pearn.

Truex has hardly slithered into the finale, though, finishing in the top 10 in five of the nine Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races. He won an emotional race at Pocono Raceway to clinch a Chase berth, celebrating in victory lane with longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, who was diagnosed with cancer last summer.

“Everybody keeps telling me to enjoy myself and don’t take it too serious and have a good time with it,” Truex said. “This is coming from guys who have done this before, experienced it. And I really didn’t need that advice.”

Truex is cramming all the fun he can into this championship weekend after a string of personal and professional hardships.

Truex landed at Furniture Row in the wake of NASCAR’s cheating scandal at Richmond in 2013. Truex was booted from the Chase when NASCAR determined that Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the outcome of the race in a bid to get Truex into the Chase.

Truex lost his job — and can now win a title the same day his old team races for the final time before folding.

Is it hard to believe that what happened at Richmond, might be …

“A blessing?” Truex interjected. “Sherry told me after that race, don’t let it get you down. Things happen for a reason. It’s going to work out. Of course, I didn’t believe her the night that I got the phone call from NASCAR and they told me what they were going to do.”

He realized there were too many parts of life outside his control, which struck hard when Pollex learned she had ovarian cancer. She has three more chemotherapy treatments left, with the final one coming shortly before the 2016 Daytona 500.

“It’ll be great to kick off a new season and not have to worry about that, hopefully, anymore, ever,” Truex said.

His biggest concern this week? Snow, of all things.

His No. 78 Chevrolet was still on the way to Florida, road packed in an 18-wheeler that was delayed by a snowstorm in Colorado. His rig drivers slept Tuesday night at a Walmart parking lot, their scheduled 36-hour trip stretched out even longer.

“I think all is well,” Truex said.

Furniture Row, funded by Barney Visser, made the Chase in 2013 with Kurt Busch, and is tethered to Richard Childress Racing through a technical alliance. Gordon, Harvick and Busch all have three teammates. Truex would be the first driver from a one-car team to win a Cup championship since Dale Earnhardt and RCR achieved the feat in 1994.

“It brings a legitimacy to the team,” Furniture Row general manager Joe Garone said. “We’ve been a team that’s been growing for so long on a pretty linear upward curve. To come to this point in time, it answers a lot of questions.”

Truex’s success has even resonated in Denver, a city usually gripped with football fever this time of the year. Truex’s championship push might find some headline space with the Denver Broncos mired in a two-game losing skid.

“Luckily, ours is good press,” Truex said, laughing. “I’m sure theirs wasn’t too good after last weekend.”

Let all the fans chase Manning; Truex bums around town in anonymity.

“I can go just about anywhere anyway,” he said. “Nobody knows who I am.”

That could all change with the race of a lifetime and a championship trophy to bring home.