Column: Truex appreciates every aspect of his time on top
By JENNA FRYER
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) As Martin Truex Jr. leads lap after lap, week after week, in this season of rare dominance, it is easy to forget that he was once a journeyman driver in fear of losing his job in NASCAR.
That was just four years ago.
Truex was an unwitting participant in one of the biggest cheating scandals in NASCAR history. His Michael Waltrip Racing team deliberately caused a caution that set in motion Truex winning a race that would have put him in the playoffs. As the deception unraveled, Truex was kicked out of the playoffs and MWR received crippling sanctions. Truex's team was shut down by the end of the year, one-third of the MWR organization was laid off and the team was out of business two years later.
"When all that first happened, I didn't know if I'd ever be able to race in the series again competitively," Truex said. "I didn't know if I'd ever have a chance at winning again."
Look at him now, fresh off a series-best sixth win of the season and the unquestioned favorite to win the Cup title next month. His victory Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the second out of four playoff races, and it automatically earned him a slot in the next round.
Truex leads the series in victories, top-five finishes, top-10s, laps led, stages won and playoff points. Not a race goes by in which Truex can't figure out a way to get his No. 78 Toyota to the front of the field.
By his estimation, had cautions not fallen the way they did or had luck been on his side, Truex believes he should have at least 10 victories this season.
That's hardly what anyone envisioned for him as MWR fell apart and Truex, who had nothing to do with the scandal, found himself out of a job.
He was lucky that Furniture Row Racing had an opening. The one-car team based in Denver had made significant progress with driver Kurt Busch, and team owner Barney Visser wanted to continue that upward trajectory after Busch moved on.
Truex, a two-time Xfinity Series champion who had never found the same success at the Cup level, was the best of the available drivers. Furniture Row, what little anyone knew about the organization, was the best of the open seats.
"I felt like it was a good opportunity at the time," Truex said. "It was not a consistent winner at the time, but it was a good opportunity and I didn't feel like I was taking a step backwards, so that was good. That felt OK to me."
It was not easy at first.
He led just one lap all of 2014, he had just one top-five finish and was 24th in the points. At the end of the year, crew chief Todd Berrier said he wanted to go back home to North Carolina, where nearly every other top NASCAR team is based.
Visser remained committed, though, backing the car out of his own pocket and rubber stamping anything that could help his team grow.
"It was a struggle for a while, for sure, but I think the commitment from Barney and the family feel and the drive to want to be better and be a player in this sport is really what caught my attention in 2014 when we were struggling," Truex said. "It would have been easy for him to give up on me and give up on all the guys. Essentially, we changed a crew chief because Berrier wanted to move back to North Carolina, and that's all we changed. We went from a team that could barely run 15th to 20th."
Moving Cole Pearn to crew chief and switching to Toyota in an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing has made all the difference. Truex made the championship race the next year and was a favorite for the title last year but was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round. Now, it would be an upset if Truex isn't in the final four drivers in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He choked back tears in victory lane at Charlotte. He knows how fleeting success can be, and how hard it is to get to the top. Truex understands exactly how fortunate he is right now.
"We're in a really great position right now, and a lot of that's because of Barney, his vision of the team and just his determination to want to be one of the top guys," Truex said. "It's amazing to be a part of it. I'm thankful for it every single day. But I damn sure didn't see it coming the way it is right now."
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Updated October 9, 2017