It was fitting for Martin Truex Jr. to be introduced as NASCAR's newest champion by his buddy Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was Earnhardt who helped Truex venture out of New Jersey to give it a go in NASCAR. Now, nearly 15 years later, Truex was on racing's biggest stage.
As much as this final week of celebration tilted toward Earnhardt, NASCAR's retiring superstar, he made sure to turn the spotlight on his "good buddy" Truex during Thursday night's Las Vegas celebration.
It ensured Truex, a journeyman driver who has battled more than his share of adversity on and off the track, got his proper due.
"To me and many who know him, he's a champion in so many ways," Earnhardt said in his introduction. "Like when his professional career turned challenging, his options limited, he blamed no one. He kept his head high, he persevered because he's a champion person. While the love of his life battles the most evil of diseases and he stands with her to make her fight his fight, he's a champion partner. When he's away from the track, perhaps enjoying his true passion for hunting or fishing, you realize this, he's a champion friend. He's the man. The champion in so many ways and no one more deserving of this night."
Truex was wiping away tears before he reached Earnhardt and the Monster Energy Cup trophy.
His story has been well-documented. Despite winning two second-tier titles while driving for Earnhardt, Truex's Cup career hit bump after bump because of a changing economy and a cheating scandal in which he played no part butt nearly cost him his career.
When Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the finish of a 2013 race at Richmond to try to get Truex into the playoffs, it set in motion a chain of decisions that first cost Truex his job and ultimately put MWR out of business. He had just one option: Denver-based Furniture Row Racing, an oddity in NASCAR. The Barney Visser-owned team was small, based in Colorado, and had only that season turned a small corner toward progress.
Truex took the job, the team struggled, everyone was frustrated. And in September of his first season with his new team, Truex's partner, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
The couple were public with the struggle during Pollex's battle, and again this season as she has suffered a recurrence. Truex was honored this week by the NASCAR community, and the couple received the prestigious Myers Brothers Award for their charitable efforts. On Monday, Pollex has chemotherapy scheduled.
"The 78 race team has carried the same motto throughout the race season, `Never Give Up," Truex said in his speech. "No one has lived that out more than my life partner Sherry. She's still fighting her disease with a tenacity and a `Never Give Up' attitude that has inspired millions of people to do the same. She is the true champion."
It created a feel-good moment that captured the essence of Furniture Row's victory. The accomplishment was popular throughout the garage because no one believed a Colorado outlier could build a championship-winning team, and because Truex and Pollex are such a well-respected couple in the NASCAR community.
Visser couldn't attend his crowning moments. He's been recuperating in Colorado since early November after a heart attack and surgery. He missed the final two races of the season, including Truex's series-best and championship-clinching victory in the finale, and this week's Las Vegas celebration.
His son, Tim, represented him at the ceremony and explained how his family thought racing was going to be a retirement hobby. Then Visser's wife came home one day to find a replica of Jeff Gordon's stock car in her garage space.
"From there it was like, `OK, Dad has lost it. He's lost it," Tim Visser said. "But I think he had that vision really early on that he could win a championship, and he stuck with it."
Truex has been genuine in discussing how Visser, Furniture Row and crew chief Cole Pearn not only made him a champion on the race track, but were extended family during all the bumps Truex and the organization have been through.
"Barney Visser is the heart of this team," Truex said. "People thought he was crazy 12 years ago starting a NASCAR team in Denver. Barney, who is crazy now?"
As Truex partied into the night with his team and his peers, Earnhardt included, no one thought anything about this championship was crazy.
--- Associated Press ---