Martin Truex Jr. drives Colorado’s Furniture Row Racing to its first NASCAR title
By Doug Ottewill
Martin Truex Jr. gazed out the window. He was looking down at the tarmac below, across the baking asphalt at the planes coming and going, but he wasn’t really seeing any of it. The visions in his head were elsewhere.
It was late October 2016 and he was leaving Talladega, his chance at winning NASCAR’s most coveted achievement, the Cup, had just gone up in smoke.
What a shame, too. He was one of the favorites to win it all. He’d just come off the best season he’d ever had as a driver. This was his shot, but when the engine in his No. 78 car failed on Lap 41 of a scheduled 188, he and Furniture Racing were done.
“Damn. It hurts to go out like that,” he told reporters after the race.
Sherry Pollex reached across the seat, touching him if only for a moment of distraction.
“I know that this is everything to you,” she said. “And I know how important this team is and this championship is. But at the end of the day, I’m here with you on this plane and we’re both healthy, and we both get to go home to a beautiful home and we have this amazing life we get to live. And there’s going to be another door that’s going to open for us down the road.
“I want you to remember that.”
This was no ordinary pep talk. It wasn’t the typical girlfriend-to-boyfriend consolation prize. More aptly, Pollex, Truex’s girlfriend of nearly 15 years, was simply putting things in perspective.
What Truex had been through as a driver – losing his ride after the 2013 season when Michael Waltrip Racing announced that his No. 56 car would become a research and development team the following season; learning that NAPA wasn’t going to renew its sponsorship of him; driving to a lackluster 24th-place finish in 2014, his first season with Furniture Row Racing – was a bumpy road at best. He’d hit rock bottom then, and this was nowhere near that.
“I don’t think at that time Martin ever thought he’d be relevant in the sport again,” Pollex later said.
But what Truex and Pollex had been through as people was an even more torturous test. In early August 2014, she was diagnosed with stage III primary peritoneal carcinoma, an advanced form of ovarian cancer. Doctors gave her a 20 percent chance to live past five years, and if she didn’t have surgery immediately, they warned, she wouldn’t make it until Christmas. Even after the tumors were surgically removed, she was still in for another 17 months of intense chemotherapy. If she wanted to fight, this was the only way to do so. It was a jolt far bigger, more impactful – deadlier – than any collision with a retaining wall could ever produce.
Sitting on the tarmac that day in Talladega, however, that was all in the past. By September 2015, she’d gone into remission. By January 2016, she no longer had to endure treatments. For the moment, she was cancer free. And even though the elimination race in Talladega hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to, she and Truex – all things considered – were on top of the world.
Still, he was upset. It wasn’t just that he’d lost. He wanted to win it for her. That he was “back” as a driver was inconsequential. And aside from winning it all for Pollex, he wanted to win it for his team. After all, it was president Joe Garone and Furniture Row Racing that had given him another shot after that dreadful 2013 season. It was team owner Barney Visser that told Truex, just months into his first season driving the No. 78 car, to get out of the race car and go take care of Pollex.
“This man had put our family and my health in front of his race car,” Pollex said of Visser.
Had it not been for her, Truex would have acted upon Visser’s recommendation. He would have taken time off, in the middle of the season, with the blessing of his owner. But Pollex insisted that he continue to race. For him to help her, she thought, he needed to be himself. He could escape on the racetrack, where he belonged, and that might do more good than having him, helpless in so many ways, by her side throughout the season. She knew how important 2014 was to Truex and Visser and the entire team; she wasn’t going to allow her health to hamper what they were building.
Still, Truex looked longingly out the window of the plane, his mind racing with thoughts of what could have – what should have – been. Pollex urged him again.
“I want you to think about all the kids we’re around all the time that are fighting cancer,” she said, “and what they go through, and realize that this isn’t really a big problem – this is a small bump in the road for you.
“Life is going to have something great in store for you.”
By mid-May of 2017, true to Sherry’s words, the couple was seemingly on top of the world once again. Sherry had a clean bill of health and Martin was having a stellar year on the track. In 13 races, he’d already posted eight top-10 finishes including wins at Las Vegas and Kansas.
On May 17, the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation hosted its eighth annual “Catwalk for a Cause,” an event aimed at raising money for financially deserving families that had a child suffering from pediatric cancer. The most recent effort raised over $650,000, a new high for the foundation. Ironically, Truex and Pollex had formed the foundation in 2007 with a mission to assist children in need within the community, but in 2010, Pollex suggested changing the focus toward benefiting pediatric cancer patients – some four years before she was diagnosed.
In July, after tacking on four more top-10 finishes, Truex readied himself for Kentucky. Days before the race, the couple learned that Pollex had suffered a recurrence. She scheduled surgery – a splenectomy, to have her spleen removed, and a liver resection – for the same weekend that Furniture Row Racing was scheduled to compete in the Quaker State 400. The thought of missing races to care for Pollex once again entered Truex’s mind.
“I remember looking at him and saying, ‘I’m not going to give up. If that’s what they’re hoping for, they picked the wrong girl. I’m going to fight with everything I’ve got,’” she told him before the race. “You’re having the best season of your life in a race car; you’re not going to let this distract you.”
Calling Pollex’s recurrence a “distraction” seemed like a gross understatement. How could it not be? Regardless, Truex obeyed her request and returned to the track with what could best be classified as a renewed focus.
Not only did he race at Kentucky, but he won convincingly, holding the lead for 152 laps along the way.
He didn’t let up from there. He finished third the next week at New Hampshire, third again two weeks later at Pocono. One week later at Watkins Glen, he won yet another. He took second the following week at Michigan.
To say that Truex was red hot would have been an understatement, akin to calling cancer a “distraction.” From the time of Pollex’s second surgery to the end of the 2017 season, Truex had a whopping 15 top-10 finishes, only one of which was outside the top-5, and six of which were outright wins.
No matter how dominant his No. 78 Toyota was, however, heading into NASCAR’s finale it was widely noted that Homestead-Miami Speedway was a nemesis to some degree. He and Furniture Row Racing had experienced some difficulty there earlier and had never won on the track. Despite Pollex’s reassurance that he’d had success in Miami before – back when he was driving the No. 56 car for Waltrip – or that Kyle Larson, who might have been considered one of the best drivers on that particular track, had already been eliminated from championship contention, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn didn’t plan on leaving a single stone unturned.
Several teams vying for the title opted out of a test run two weeks before the race. Truex and Pearn did not. They hoped the test could yield some key results, knowing that Miami-Homestead hadn’t necessarily been kind of late. Pearn felt it important to come up with a new plan for when it mattered most. As the 35-year-old crew chief would later say, “We didn’t want to go down there trying ‘not to lose it’ – we went down there to win it.”
On Nov. 19, when the race in Miami began, Pollex sat and watched nervously.
“We’re in trouble,” she thought.
Things were not looking good. The track was squirrely per usual. Truex appeared to have no early advantage as the No. 78 car skittishly made its way from turn to turn. Calmly, Pearn came over the radio to remind his driver that he’d set the car up for nighttime – that the No. 78 car would get progressively better as conditions became darker and cooler.
“It’s not been our best track landing,” Pearn said. “It’s a very tricky, low-grip surface. It changes a lot and the groove moves around a lot and it’s not typical of a lot of the tracks that we run on. We put a lot of special effort into trying to figure out what we needed to do to be good. I think the key for us was trying to plan to be good at night – you run the last 50 money laps, so to speak, in the nighttime. That was really our focus and it was hard during the day because we knew we were giving up a little bit, trying to plan to be good at night.
“It’s hard to know for sure that’s going to work out.”
But it did.
With faith in Pearn’s plan, Truex methodically guided the No. 78 car around the 1.5-mile oval. At no point during the race was the lead “comfortable.” Kyle Busch charged from behind all day long, never letting the Furniture Row Racing team so much as blink. Busch’s car, which was better than Truex’s on the long stretches, had crept from fourth to third to second by lap 241. With some help from a well-timed caution flag and what Truex called a “good line” the 78 maintained its first-place position.
“I told my guys we were going to dig deeper than we ever have today, and [with] 20 [laps] to go, I thought I was done – they were all better than me on the long run all day long,” Truex told Reid Spencer of NASCAR.com after holding off Busch by a mere .681 seconds for the win. “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.
“I never thought this day would come.”
Not only had Truex won at Miami-Homestead for the first time, but the win gave him his first-ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title. Perhaps even more amazingly, the trophy was headed to Colorado, the only place west of the Mississippi to boast a NASCAR team.
Back in Colorado just eight days after smoking the tires in triumph at Homestead-Miami and hours before heading to Vegas for NASCAR’s Champions Week, Truex stood amidst lights and cameras and reporters inside Furniture Row’s brand new showroom for a “media only” event. Like everyone else since the victory, Colorado wanted – needed! – a piece of him. This was a big deal, the state’s first-ever NASCAR champion was back in town.
The only problem was that this private affair had somehow turned into something quite public.
The Furniture Row Racing P.R. staff would later confirm that one member of the media concluded it to be a good idea to post the scheduled gathering on Facebook for anyone and everyone to see. As such, anyone and everyone showed up. Instead of a handful of local journalists, hundreds of fans were milling around in hopes of catching a glimpse of their newly crowned hero. When he finally arrived, a rousing ovation filled the normally still air of the showroom.
“YOU DID IT, MARTIN!” a fan screamed as if he was sitting in the grandstands of Daytona.
“YOU THE MAN!” echoed another.
It had turned into a circus of sorts, with devotees drifting throughout the venue that was more accustomed to quiet, Saturday shoppers and not quite as familiar with shrieks and shrills of raucous race fans. Occasionally, the more-clever attendees would slip in front of television camera or interrupt a reporter’s interview just long enough for an autograph or a selfie with Truex.
Through it all, and knowing he had a plane to catch for Sin City, he smiled. There was no way this could ever get old.
“I would normally say that I was shocked by it, except over the years, just gradually, you could see a swell of interest for what we were doing,” Garone said watching Truex delight the crowd on hand. “I had a pretty good feeling that if we could bring back this trophy here that we were going to feel the warmth from all of the race fans. This market is really a good market for new NASCAR fans.
“[For our shop tours] we get anywhere from 75 to 100 people every Thursday wanting to walk through the shop – which is pretty amazing, honestly, when you think about it.”
It was Garone, a Colorado native with deep racing roots, who was originally charged with assembling Visser’s Colorado-based racing team, an effort that began without a specific vision before 2005. The idea that Colorado could compete in NASCAR was one that Garone’s gut initially told him to be almost impossible, but somehow a dozen years later it had morphed into a most unlikely championship.
“Our crew chief is the best out there,” Garone said, deflecting any credit for the title run. “You have to have a driver that meshes with the team, that can communicate well. It’s not just driving skills, it’s communication skills, too – and we have got one of the best.”
And the best was forged by more than just time on the track.
Said Pollex: “When you get down in those deep and dark moments in your life, and you’re that scared, and you stare mortality in the face every day, those are the moments that bring out the person you are. You either react to it in a good way, and you become a better person, or you crawl in a hole and feel sorry for yourself.
“Neither of us are those types of people. We got right back up and said, ‘We’re going to show everybody that we can do this.’”
To this day, Pollex, who should be done with her latest round of treatments before the next race season kicks off at Daytona, has yet to see the entire post-race interview. The series of questions that immediately followed the win in Miami brought Truex, engulfed with emotion, to a steady stream of tears.
“I’d thought about that moment for a long time,” she said. “I couldn’t even go there because the emotions were so intense.
“You look at all the things that happened after the race, and all the emotions – from Cole and myself and Martin – I don’t know that anybody who doesn’t personally know us can understand what we were feeling in that moment. We’d been through so much together, as a couple and as a team, it’s hard to describe to other people what that moment meant to us.”
On the surface, the moment meant something big, something unprecedented, to Furniture Row Racing and the state of Colorado. It meant that a NASCAR championship – a first for everyone involved – was in hand.
But like all the moments that spawn consideration for the Mile High Sports Sportsperson of the Year Award, it was bigger. Much bigger.
“I know the chances of my disease and my survival are not good,” said Pollex, who had to wait patiently at the airport for Truex to wrap the photo shoot and impromptu meet-and-greet.
“But nobody can take that moment away from me.”
Back at the showroom Truex is asked, “What’s next?”
His index finger pointed skyward, he moves it in tiny circles as a grin begins to spread across his face.
“More of this,” he says with a laugh.