There's a tendency in the NASCAR world to let the headlines of the hour distract us from those stories that are much more worthy of our attention. Pit-road penalties, Silly Season rumors, playoff scenarios, a driver going bonkers on Twitter ... they've all drawn our eyes and minds away from the one 2017 story we should never stop thinking and talking about.
Martin Truex Jr. is authoring one of the greatest comeback stories not merely in recent memory, but in NASCAR history. All while girlfriend Sherry Pollex is authoring one of the most inspiring off-track stories I've witnessed in my 20-plus years of covering of motorsports, taking her cancer fight directly into the spotlight.
Allow me to remind you of what's happening here.
With only four races remaining before NASCAR's postseason, Truex has emerged as the prohibitive Monster Energy Cup title favorite. After his victory at Watkins Glen on Sunday, Truex leads the Cup series in wins (4), top 10s (15), laps led (1,315), average start (7th), average finish (11.1), race-stage wins (14) and playoff points (34). In many of those stat columns he holds leads so large they seem like typos.
If you've followed Truex's career, all of this feels like a typo.
It was less than four years ago that his career was supposed to be done, kaput, finished, up on blocks, forever and ever amen. At that same time four years ago, the team he now drives for, Furniture Row Racing, was king of the also-rans. A Denver-based outlier underwritten by the owner's furniture business with one feel-good upset race win to show for nearly a decade of trying.
Just so you know, those two factors added together aren't supposed to produce "title favorite" on the other side of the equal sign.
No, Truex was supposed to be a commercial fisherman. That's what his father ("The Clam King of New Jersey") and uncle did, so that's what he was going to do. He would eventually oversee the family's fleet of fishing boats that runs up and down the shores of New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. But Martin Truex Sr. was also a part-time racer and that's what his boys wanted to do. "Being on those boats, I have never worked so hard in my life. It taught me the value of hard work, but it also taught me that I really wanted to be a race car driver," Junior said to me way back in 2007 for an ESPN The Magazine story. "If I'd ended up in the seafood business I would have been proud to do it. But standing on the deck of that boat I was always thinking about one thing: racing."
Problem was, his racing always seemed mixed with equal parts destiny and rotten luck.
He ran his first go-kart race at the age of 10 ... but when he slowed to avoid a wreck another kid flew up from behind and drove over his back and head. Mom wanted him to quit right then and there. He didn't. The one time he raced against Senior, in a 2000 Busch North race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, father and son were headed for a classic dual to the finish ... but a bum alternator sent Junior to the garage before the showdown could materialize.
In 2003, as the family's bank account was drying up, he was approached by another Junior -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- during a test session at Richmond. It turned out that the vice president of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, Richie Gilmore, had a friend who was on Truex's Busch North crew and that friend wouldn't stop bending Gilmore's ear about the kid from New Jersey. Dale Junior told Truex he was starting a Busch Series team and the next day he wanted to put Truex in his car for an audition ... but it rained.
"I thought, there goes my shot. But we stayed in touch and the next thing you know, after all those years of struggling, things started happening fast. He was starting a new team and put me in the car a few weeks later and in 2004 I was running full-time. I'm sure a lot of people were like, 'Dale Jr. is crazy. Who the hell is Martin Truex Jr.?"
Who was he? He was the Busch Series champion and he did that twice, a lot of it while living in Earnhardt's house. In 2006 he moved into the Cup series with DEI. Little T was teammates with Little E and Michael Waltrip. It felt like a dream. The following year he got his Cup sea legs under him, earning his first emotional win, fittingly at Dover ("Victory Lane felt like home. I could smell the salt air.") ... but Earnhardt announced he was leaving for Hendrick Motorsports. Then Dale Earnhardt Incorporated became Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and, well ...
"That got not-fun really fast," Truex recalled last fall. "So, in 2010 I went with Michael's new team."
With Michael Waltrip Racing, again, it took a while to get back to Victory Lane, 124 races to be exact. On June 23, 2013 he won at Sonoma, placing himself in contention to grab a coveted Chase berth. Then, 10 races later, came the biggest but of them all. If you don't know the story of the 2013 Richmond night race, feel free to do some Googling. Be sure to pack a lunch, because sifting through the wreckage of it all will take a while.
The largest chunks in that debris field belong to what was left of Truex's career. By season's end his sponsor had walked away, MWR contracted and his ride was gone.
"I honestly thought I might be done, like, for good," he told me on the eve of the 2015 season finale. "There just weren't any rides out there. Then I got the call."
It came from Denver. Kurt Busch's electrifying, career rehab two-year stint at Furniture Row Racing was ending. He was headed to Stewart-Haas Racing in a move that few saw coming, so FRR was in a bind. They knew that Truex was also in a tough spot and offered him the gig. "Most people probably thought, well, Martin is just making do with the only offer out there," recalls Joe Garone, team president. "And those same people thought, well, Furniture Row is just doing the only last-minute deal that they can. They weren't wrong. But we stuck with each other."
The 2014 season was brutal. That's the year Pollex received her diagnosis of Stage 3 ovarian cancer. Meanwhile, the team led only one lap and finished 24th in the standings, a huge fall-off from Busch's performance. The garage embraced Pollex, but largely shrugged over the on-track results. This was how it was supposed to go down, right? The also-ran team with the never-gonna-get-over-the-hump driver?
In 2015, they made the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was framed as a nice little story, an asterisk to one day be added to the racer's final résumé. Then they unexpectedly backed it up. In 2016 they won four races, one more than Truex had won in the 10 years prior and twice more than FRR had won over that same span.
That brings us to now, to the celebration at Watkins Glen, a race won in spite of a pair of strange pit-crew suspensions and on a day when crew chief Cole Pearn was mourning the unexpected death of his best friend. Success in the face of all that is only more fuel for the realization that this is no fluke here. At 37, Martin Truex Jr. is a legitimate, multiyear Cup contender.
The story isn't merely feel-good. This is a career comeback of epic proportions, a rebound from one of the darkest nights in American racing history. The Furniture Row story isn't merely "rich guy goes racing." It's the decade's only true success story of a completely new, walk-in-the-door NASCAR team owner. And Sherry Pollex isn't merely another public crusader versus cancer. No one has ever looked more beautiful while in the midst of such an ugly fight.
So, let's all do ourselves a favor, shall we? Let's take a moment to tune out the NASCAR noise. To stop worrying about ratings or sponsor dollars or attendance or superstars retiring.
This is a time when it feels like we could all use something that makes us smile. A little inspiration. It can be found this weekend with that big "78" on the side of it.