Mile High Sports Pro Athlete of the Year: Martin Truex Jr., Furniture Row Racing

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

On the eve of the biggest race of his life, Martin Truex Jr. sat in his motorhome, parked in the shadows of Homestead-Miami Speedway, just killing time. Browsing through Twitter, suddenly he was taken by surprise.

Up on his phone popped a tweet from a man he’d never met before, but someone he surely knew about. A famous man, but prominent largely in circles that did not know much, if anything, about Truex. The race car driver was shocked that this football legend even knew who he was.

“Getting a tweet from John Elway was probably one of the coolest things that I’ve ever had happen to me,” Truex says, with complete genuineness. “That was awesome.”

Another highlight in a season full of them.

The 35-year-old was in Miami prepping for the final race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which was already his best season ever. Truex had advanced to the final round of his sport’s playoffs – the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Forty-three drivers would compete in the Ford EcoBoost 400, but only four were still in the hunt for the Sprint Cup Championship. It marked Truex’s first appearance in NASCAR’s final four.

Aware of all this, Elway wanted to offer encouragement. The Denver Broncos general manager and NFL Hall of Famer supports Truex because Truex is the face of Furniture Row Racing, and FRR is the greatest NASCAR team to ever call Denver home.

That simple message reminded Truex of his fans outside NASCAR’s bubble in the Carolinas, out west in a place most people don’t equate with NASCAR. The Broncos rule in Denver, so to have the ruler of the Broncos send his support? “Wow, that’s pretty cool,” Truex thought.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help him win the race. That was taken by Kyle Busch, who also won the Sprint Cup title. Truex placed 12th, a decent result, but behind the other three battling for the championship.

Nonetheless, fourth place in The Chase is the best ever for Truex, and for Furniture Row Racing. On the year, they recorded eight top-five finishes, 22 top-10s, and a victory at Pocono Raceway in June. Truex ended up as NASCAR’s biggest gainer in the point standings, soaring from 24th in 2014 to fourth.

For that rise to prominence, Truex is MHSM’s Professional Athlete of the Year.

What’s most remarkable about Truex’s season is that while he needs to be near all the action out east, his crew gets it done in Denver, the only NASCAR team based west of the Mississippi. FRR’s shop is tucked into the Park Hill neighborhood, a mile from Interstate 70 and Colorado Boulevard. It’s not glamorous, but the team’s work is.

Nearly every one of FRR’s competitors resides near the racing hub of Charlotte, N.C., as do many suppliers for car equipment. So tracking and coordinating all the parts and pieces going back and forth across the country is a challenge that only FRR faces.

But the team is in Denver, and will always remain in Denver, because this is where entrepreneurial businessman Barney Visser wants to live. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High and playing football at Northern Colorado, he founded Furniture Row Companies. Upon semi-retiring decades after the home furnishings company flourished, Visser founded a racing team – in an “impossible to win” locale, said the critics.

Most of the powerhouse squads in the Carolinas run three, four or five cars a race. Furniture Row Racing boasts just one, Truex’s No. 78. Kurt Busch was FRR’s driver in 2013, when it became the first single-car team to make NASCAR’s 16-team playoffs. But he bolted after the season, and Truex never hesitated when offered the chance to join a team based in Denver.

Things started slowly in 2014, though. Then in August, Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Life became tough on and off the track. It’s a battle she continued to fight throughout the 2015 season and one that will last until at least February for precautionary reasons. Through it all, FRR stood by their driver and he stood by them, even through other big changes.

Before 2015, Cole Pearn was promoted from lead race engineer to crew chief. All the team did next was record 14 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, including the win at Pocono, which snapped Truex’s 69-race winless streak. Pearn, his driver says, was the “one person responsible for most of the change.”

“No matter how good you are, how many races you’ve won, because it’s so difficult, you just never know when that last win’s going to be. So to get back there after all that I’d been through was just…” Truex pauses. “The sense of accomplishment, the pride I had was just over the top.”

Says Kurt Hansen of Race Central TV and radio, “Having witness firsthand the success and level of respect that Furniture Row Racing has gained since Martin’s arrival, not only nationally but here in the region, it is truly amazing. It’s really a tribute to the whole team.

Denver’s newest adopted son is also proud of his honor in this magazine.

“For me to be recognized personally is huge,” Truex says. “But just in general for a big city like Denver – they don’t have a NASCAR track, there are no races around there – to be recognized as the Professional Athlete of the Year there, it’s a huge accomplishment. I’m very, very proud of it.”

SHARE