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NASCAR & Auto Racing

How the worst year of Martin Truex’s life jump-started his unlikely rise to superstardom

 

In the days immediately after 2014, ended Martin Truex Jr. didn’t mince words: the season — really the whole year — was the worst of his life. Michael Waltrip Racing had dropped Truex after the 2013 season and he landed with Furniture Row Racing, one of the smallest outfits on the NASCAR Cup Series. He barely even squeaked out any top-10 finishes throughout 2014. Sherry Pollex, Truex’s longtime partner, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

He looks back now at 2014

“As bad as it was of a season” Truex said Friday, “it was really the start of where we’re at now.”

The five years since have brought on a run of success like Truex, 39, had never experienced. In 2015, he cracked the Championship 4 for the first time and raced at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a Cup Series title on the line for the first time. Two years later, he made the Championship 4 again and left Homestead with his first Cup Series championship.

His trips down to South Florida with a chance to win NASCAR’s ultimate prize have become a habit at this point. On Sunday, he will race in the Ford EcoBoost 400 as part of the Championship 4 for the third straight season and for the fourth time in five years.

And it all started with a year Truex just always figured he would want to forget.

“That’s kind of where we started this whole thing,” Truex said.

The end at Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) came swiftly for Truex. The 2013 season was one of the best yet for Truex, which made sense. He was in his early 30s — often the prime years for a driver — and he clinched a spot in the NASCAR playoffs in the final race of the regular season.

His celebration was short-lived, though. The day after he earned is way into the postseason, NASCAR determined MWR tried to manipulate the results of the race in Richmond, Virginia, and docked Truex of 50 points. He slipped outside the top 16 and his season ended inauspiciously.

After the season, the National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) cut its multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with Truex after his involvement in the scandal. With NAPA out of the picture, MWR cut its team from three cars to two and dropped Truex from its ranks.

At Furniture Row Racing, Truex could toil away in relative anonymity. He ran the only full-time car for the now-defunct team and, at least in 2014, did it without creating any reason for outsiders to pay attention. It was easy to not notice one of the most important relationships in NASCAR developing behind the scenes.

Cole Pearn was already with Furniture Row Racing (FRR) when Truex arrived for the 2014 season. He had been with FRR pretty much exclusively since his career in NASCAR began, working as the team’s lead race engineer. Although he and Truex struggled throughout 2014, Truex could tell there was a chemistry there.

“We were really struggling with the car, trying to figure it out, but the one thing that was constant was our relationship was really good and we never pointed fingers at each other,” Pearn said. “We just continued to work hard and say, We’re going to figure this out.”

Truex made Pearn his crew chief for the start of 2015 and success immediately came with it. Truex finished in the top 10 in 14 of his first 15 races in 2015, including his first win in in more than two years at the Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.

Truex said the two are actually quite different, but a quick glance at their biographies show enough similarities. Both are the sons of stock car drivers — Martin Truex Sr. raced regionally on what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and Ron Pearn raced locally in Windsor, Ontario -- and both were kart racing stars in their youth. Pearn even had a brief stock car career on the CASCAR Super Series, Canada’s top stock car division, before going back to school to get an engineering degree from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

These similarities are more important than their differences. These are the similarities binding them, which make the one of the best driver-crew chief combinations in the sport, even with their move from FRR to the much bigger Joe Gibbs Racing this year.

It’s the reason Truex has gone from middling for the majority his career to contender in these final stages. With a win Sunday, he can become only the 16th driver with multiple Cup Series championships.

“We approach racing the same way. We don’t worry about what others are doing, we don’t get caught up in hearsay, in nonsense — we focus on the details and we focus on facts,” Truex said. “It’s crazy: We’re so different, we’re such different people, we like different things, we don’t do the same stuff. A lot of things about us are different, but at the race track we’re really similar.

“The last five years have been amazing, and I’m just trying to enjoy it and trying to keep it going.”

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