Fifteen years ago, NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. entered the racing scene with high expectations. He made his debut as a young driver with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and was recognized as one of the next great drivers.
But whether it was broken gear lever, burned out engines or devastating Pit street penalties That ended his racing day or his teams, which collapsed under him and threatened his entire career. Truex, 40, only made it to Victory Lane twice in his first decade in the NASCAR top series.
However, over the past five seasons, Truex has gone from a career disappointment to a likely Hall of Famer and one of the most successful American racers of all time, ranking 30th in career wins.
No driver has completed more laps than Truex since 2015 and only Kevin Harvick has taken home more inspectors.
Calm and patient, as has always been his nature, he has become one of the most dominant drivers in the sport.
He’s won on short circuits, on mile and a half tracks, and on street circuits, but he hasn’t won on the sport’s superspeedways like Talladega or Daytona, where he’s racing for the season opening Daytona 500 on Sunday.
It will be his 17th attempt.
At the Daytona 500 2016 he finished second and lost 0.01 seconds ahead of Denny Hamlin. From Truex’s point of view, this is the lowest profit margin (or loss) in the long history of the race.
“Everywhere we go, he has a chance to win,” said Joe Gibbs, Hall of Fame football coach and current Truex team owner. “And there aren’t many people like that.”
Meanwhile, Truex has overcome a deeply personal challenge: Sherry Pollex, his longtime girlfriend, battled ovarian cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2014. She improved after aggressive treatment, but Pollex announced late last year that the disease had returned.
For Truex, standing by his partner while she’s undergone another operation and rounds of chemotherapy is just as much a part of life as it is to strap on his helmet and climb into the cockpit of his racing car.
Cancer, he said, “is what we live all the time.”
“But you learn to understand what matters and not worry about the things that don’t matter,” he added.
His boss put it more succinctly.
“He’s been through so much,” said Gibbs.
Truex tries not to think long term.
With a mentality developed both as a world-class racer and as a partner for someone in the battle of their life, Truex focuses on the world right through his windshield: his next race, Pollex’s next treatment, and maybe when he’s fast enough , a second Cup Series championship will be held in November.
He’s not thinking about retiring or worrying about his place in the history of his sport.
“I’ve never really thought much about a legacy or what my career means,” said Truex. “The main thing right now is that I still like to race, like to race and like to win.”
Now that he nears the twilight of a career full of ups and downs, Truex is focused on the task at hand. winning the Daytona 500, scoring more victories, and being back in Victory Lane at the end of the season to dedicate another championship to his girlfriend as the metallic green ticker ribbon fills the air.
It would be the culmination of a career born in a small town near the Jersey Shore, far from the epicenter of stock car racing in the south.
He was introduced to racing by his father, a racing driver who made a regional name for himself in what was then the Busch North Series.
To finance his race, Martin Truex Sr. worked on staple boats and eventually started a commercial stapling company.
“Racing was a hobby,” said Truex Jr. of his father’s racing career. “He always had to pay for everything himself.”
Just like his father, Truex Jr. worked on his family’s boat as a teenager to make money to buy auto parts for his races at the nearby Wall Stadium, a 800-meter paved oval track where he was driving a racing car learned.
He quickly rose through the lower echelons of stock car racing before making his full-time Cup series debut in 2006.
Truex’s first win came shortly afterwards, in 2007, at Dover International Speedway in Delaware.
Then, season after season, Truex couldn’t find a formula that worked.
He left the Earnhardt team at the end of the 2009 season to drive the # 56 car for Michael Waltrip Racing. But after Truex won just once in 2013, the team worked out.
Without a car to drive, Truex thought his career, and with it his lifelong dream, might be over.
But a ride on Barney Visser’s Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team surfaced, and after brief negotiations, Truex signed to drive the # 78 car.
Little was expected of the team, a one-car anomaly and the only racing team not stationed in or around Charlotte, NC
After a disastrous 2014 campaign, while much of Truex’s focus was on his girlfriend’s health, the pieces started to fit.
In 2017, a year and a half after his season in Victory Lane, in which he was eight times in Victory Lane, Truex won the silver NASCAR Cup trophy, the crowning finale of the season, on a warm night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It was a race he absolutely had to win to be the champion of the season.
As Truex drove his winning lap, the camera in the car showed him wiping the tears from his eyes. His voice shook with emotion as he thanked his pit crew over the radio.
Moments later, with the ticker tape on Victory Lane and the tears still flowing, he publicly recognized Pollex and compared the three-hour fight he had just witnessed in his car to the fight they had waged together.
“A lot of it was for her,” said Truex. “We just never gave up all day.”
It was the highest point in a career marked by so many lows, so many close calls, and so many fasts.
After Furniture Row Racing fell one position behind winning back-to-back championships in 2018, the company announced it would cease operations.
Truex soon signed with Joe Gibbs Racing and has since driven the # 19 car, winning eight races in the past two years.
Gibbs attributes much of his success behind the wheel to Truex’s mild manner.
“What impresses you is how removed even Martin’s personality is from the circuit,” Gibbs said. “That carries over to the racing car and it really helps because it can easily think through problems.
“He keeps thinking, keeps working, keeps fighting.”