Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing show resiliency with 2017 title run

Chris Owens/Action Sports Photography

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing (FRR) endured a heartbreaking, arduous 2017 in their second season with Toyota.

They emerged from it as champions.

Truex surged into the lead on the final run and held off a hard-charging Kyle Busch to win Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, claiming his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Truex, 37, was followed by Busch (second), Kevin Harvick (fourth) and Brad Keselowski (seventh) to complete the Championship 4.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Truex said of the title, fighting through tears as he soaked the moment in. “To think about all the rough days and bad days, the days that couldn’t run 20th, to be here, I never thought this day would come and to be here is so unbelievable.”

The result was the culmination of an unexpected rise for both Truex and FRR.

The pairing came together quietly. Truex arrived at FRR at the end of a controversy he played no part in, when his sponsor NAPA Auto Parts left both he and Michael Waltrip Racing after Clint Bowyer appeared to intentionally spin at Richmond Raceway to help send Truex into the 2013 edition of the playoffs – then referred to as The Chase.

After a review Truex was stripped of his playoff eligibility. Despite appearing to be guilty of nothing more than being a teammate of the offender, the New Jersey native was left out of the playoffs, ride-less and in danger of reaching the end of his career.

FRR, on the other hand, was beginning to show potential. After spending the better part of a decade toiling around the back of the pack, Barney Visser’s organization began to rise into contention over the early 2010s. They managed a victory at Darlington Raceway with Regan Smith in 2011, and earned their first playoff berth with Kurt Busch in 2013.

The pairing with the 2004 MENCS champ seemed promising, but Busch elected to move over to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014. So FRR looked to Truex to lead them into the future.

The first year was brutal.

The pairing finished inside of the top 10 just five times and had an average finish of 20.2 as Truex battled with a major off-track distraction – supporting his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who had been diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. Truex ended the year 24th in the standings.

Going into that offseason Truex’s career again appeared to be on rocky ground. But he and the organization persevered.

It took Truex just five races into 2015 to match his top 10 total from the previous year. He spent the majority of the regular season inside of the top five in the standings, and even claimed a resurgent win at Pocono Raceway. FRR made their first Championship 4 appearance that fall, but didn’t quite have the speed to contend for the title before settling for fourth in the standings.

That year was an unexpected surprise, but it was also a sign of things to come.

After moving to Toyota and becoming a Joe Gibbs Racing affiliate, Truex and FRR dominated in 2016. They won four races and entered the playoffs as a favorite to hoist up the title in Sprint’s final year as presenting sponsor. But under that season’s playoff format there was no reward for wins or regular season performance.

Despite being arguably the best team in the paddock, Truex’s season was undone by a blown motor at Talladega Superspeedway. He was eliminated from the playoffs, and ended the season with finishes of 40th and 36th, respectively at Phoenix Raceway and Homestead.

As has been the trend of their careers, 2017 quickly became a story of perseverance for Truex and FRR both. After their poor finish to the year, FRR had every reason to suffer a slump this season. But once again they regrouped and came back stronger.

For the second-straight year, Truex found himself in position to try to win the Daytona 500 in February. But he ran out of fuel in the final laps and finished 13th.

Another letdown, but FRR persevered.

Truex’s long-time girlfriend Sherry Pollex suffered a cancer recurrence in July. Truex again battled the balance of racing and supporting her.

But even as life threw them another steep challenge, the couple persevered.

With a host of stage wins and victories at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Kentucky Speedway and Watkins Glen International, Truex dominated the regular season.

“Stage winner: MTJ,” became the drinking phrase of the year, with Truex winning a series-best 19 of the season’s 73 stage races and creating a near-insurmountable advantage in playoff points.

But the postseason brought more controversy. As FRR headed into race day at Kansas, they did so without fabricator James “Jim” Watson, who died at age 55 after suffering a heart attack. Team owner Visser suffered a heart attack as well on November 4, though he survived after successful bypass surgery on November 6.

Still recovering, Visser was unable to join his team at Homestead.

Again the group persevered.

Truex clinched a spot in the Championship 4, but his road to a title wouldn’t be easy. He was the only contender in Homestead that didn’t have a previous championship to his name.

Early on, it also became obvious that Truex didn’t have the best car either. That honor went to Busch. But when a strategy call went wrong for Busch over the final stage, Truex soared into the lead.

The final 34-lap run saw Truex challenged by two previous champions of the playoff era. Harvick searched for a way around the New Jersey native early in the run, and when he faltered Busch rose back into contention to challenge Truex until the checkered flag fell.

But once again, Truex persevered.

As a result, he’s finally a Cup Series champion – a triumph he pledged to Pollex and his team as much as himself.

“A lot of it was for her,” Truex said of Pollex. “A lot of it was for me. A lot of it was for this team – just, I don’t even know what to say. We just never gave up all day long. We didn’t have the best car. I don’t know how we won that thing. Never give up. Dig deep.

“I told my guys we were going to dig dipper than we ever have today and 20 to go I thought I was done – they were all better than me on the long run all day long. I just found a way. I found a lane that I could use and I found a lane that was blocking enough of their air that they couldn’t use it and just made it happen.”

Truex already had two XFINITY Series titles to his name, earned with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2004 and 2005. But to reach NASCAR’s peak – and beat the sport’s biggest names in order to do it – completed a childhood dream.

“I can’t believe it,” Truex said. “I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid and just never give up. Just never give up on your dreams no matter what happens and what kind of crap you go through.”

The future remains unclear for Truex and FRR. The organization has been among the best teams in the garage for three-consecutive years, and appear poised to stay that way for the foreseeable future if things don’t change.

At 37 years old Truex still has years left in him to fight for wins and championships as long as the financial support is there. After earning eight wins this year, it would seem foolish to shy away from the current winning combination of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn.

But not everything is positive. Pollex continues to battle stage III ovarian cancer, a difficult fight despite how incredibly strong she maintains in her pursuit to win it. Visser’s long-term health could still be in question after his heart attack, and as 2017 showed the team could be hit with other unexpected woes throughout the year.

But regardless of their circumstances, the champions seem poised to continue to battle and contend in 2018.

After all, all this pairing has done since they came together is persevere.

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