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Truex Jr. Is Comfortable In Rearranged Furniture

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, April 29 2016
Martin Truex Jr. has survived bad times on and off the track. The result has been an improved Martin Truex Jr. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

Martin Truex Jr. has survived bad times on and off the track. The result has been an improved Martin Truex Jr. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

SHAWNEE, Kan. – It was pre-Kansas Speedway-event media day at a local bowling alley Wednesday and Martin Truex Jr. was addressing the topics de jour in NASCAR with much more ease than he was picking up strikes and spares.

sprint-logo-08He cruised his way through questions about lug nuts, paybacks, aero packages and Toyotas, and he did it with witty takes and easy smiles.

Enjoying life comes easy for Truex these days. Yes, because he’s following up a final-four run in the Sprint Cup’s 2015 Chase with an unexpectedly consistent start to the 2016 season.

But also because he’s seen the other side of the face on the one-eyed jack of life. The side splattered by tragedy, uncertainty and despair. The side which, if survivable, can allow a person to come out the other end of it, smiling and boyish.

After schmoozing in front of cameras, scribbling pens and microphones, and after laughing his way through at least one ugly gutter ball, Truex sat down at a small table for one final interview before heading out to the airport to catch a ride back to actual racing.

It wasn’t long before he was asked about 2014. And gone was the air of frivolity.

Things did not go well that year for Martin Truex Jr. the Sprint Cup driver or Martin Truex Jr. the vulnerable human being.

Truex had just been hired to drive for Furniture Row Racing. His job was to replace Kurt Busch, a

Martin Truex Jr. had successful shoes to fill at FRR in 2014. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett )

Martin Truex Jr. had successful shoes to fill at FRR in 2014. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett )

former Cup champion who, in his one and only year at FRR, had driven that one-car, Colorado-based, relatively under-funded team into a position of respectability.

Truex was put into the No. 78 ride with directions to carry FRR another step forward.

Didn’t happen. In fact, the step he and the team took was backward. There not only would be no victories, there would be only one top-five finish, three DNFs and an average finishing position of 20th. Total number of laps led in Truex’s first year at FRR: One.

With the sound of bowling balls scattering pins and boisterous laughter behind him, Truex lowered his gaze and shook his head at the mention of 2014.

“When you’re running that bad,” he said. “You’re not excited about going to the race track the next week.”

You’re not even excited about lifting head from pillow and facing the coming day.

“I’m sure a lot of people were saying, ‘That Truex, he can’t drive,” the 35-year-old son of a former NASCAR driver said. “And I think there were times, and to be completely honest with you, that there were a few guys on the race team that felt like I was the problem. They were like, ‘Well, we ran so good last year and all we changed was the driver.’

“As a driver, that’s hard on your confidence.”

Truex, continuing to be completely honest, said, yes, he wondered if team owner Barney Visser and general manager Joe Garone were among the those who thought the driver was the problem.

“Hell, I didn’t even know if I would have a job the next season,” the New Jersey native said. “It was

GM Joe Garone and Furniture Row suffered through tough times two years ago. (Photo courtesy of Front Row Racing)

GM Joe Garone and Furniture Row suffered through tough times two years ago. (File photo courtesy of Front Row Racing)

that bad. It was like, I don’t know that they will want me to driver their car next year. That’s how bad things were.”

Horribly, things got worse. Shakespearian worse.

His girl friend – no, make that the love, the center of his life – Sherry Pollex, fell ill during the summer and in August that year was diagnosed with Stage III cancer.

Life became more about chemotherapy sessions and follow-up visits to doctors than simple job security issues for Truex and Pollex.

But those worst moments of Truex’s life and career also contained the building blocks of his best moments.

It started with a call from Visser in the days after Pollex’s brutal diagnosis.

“He called me and said, ‘Martin, I know what’s important right now. And if you need to take off the next 10 races, this car will be here when you’re ready to come back. No questions asked,’ ” Truex said.

Those words and that gesture from his boss would send Truex flying out of bed from that day forward.

“That was like, ‘hell no I’m not taking off. We’re going to fix this thing,’ ” Truex said, fumbling for words strong enough to convey his attitude. “We’re going to, I mean, I’m going to show you, we are going to do this. Together. Because that was awesome. I was so inspired by that.”

Also inspiring were the wishes of Pollex.

“She was the first one to tell me that, ‘You’re not getting out of that race car. You’re not going to sit here with me and watch that race car go around a race track. I’ll be fine. You come back Sunday night and I’ll be here waiting.’ ”

And he did, and she was. Week after week.

And into focus came perspective.

“As hard as that was away from the track, racing was going bad, but it was like, this is nothing,” Truex said. “Racing going bad means nothing. And my outlook changed, the way I approached it changed. Racing, as hard as it was in those days, I realized it was good to get away from it and focus on the car and not worry about Sherry for four hours at a time, three hours at a time, and I just came back fresh.”

Truex was asked if rock bottom made him more rock solid as a driver.

“Absolutely. Up here,” he said pointing to his head. “Things definitely changed in that span of a few weeks. Big time for me.”

Guess so.

After riding out life and racing in 2014, 2015 arrived and the changes in Truex – and his team, which

Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing have said good-bye to Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet this year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing have said good-bye to Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet this year. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by David Tulis)

had installed Cole Pearn as crew chief – immediately began to show. They started the season with seven straight top-1o finishes. Had it not been for a stumble at Bristol in Week 8, Truex would have started the season by placing in the top 10 in all of his first 15 races.

Included in that streak was Furniture Row’s first-ever race victory, which came at Pocono in Race 14.

Joining Truex in Victory Lane that day in Pennsylvania was Pollex, who tweeted a photo of the couple along with the words: “Chemo Monday victory lane Sunday.”

The victory put Truex and FRR into the Chase where they advanced through the cutdown-format playoffs all the way to the championship-deciding, four-car finale at Homestead Miami Speedway. Truex would start 11th, finish 12th and end the season ranked fourth in his FRR Chevrolet.

A decision announced a couple months before, sent Truex into the offseason happy but concerned. The team had announced in September, that it was ending its technical alliance with Chevrolet-powered Richard Childress Racing and throwing in with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Gibbs’ Toyota Camrys were believed to be the most powerful in Cup. And Gibbs driver Kyle Busch won the 2015 Cup championship.

Hence the decision to make the move.

“The track record of Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing speaks for itself,” Garone said. “They are both proven winners with an unyielding commitment to raising the performance bar in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.”

Toyota, who had lost a key client when Michael Waltrip decided to fold up his team, was equally

Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team can now tap into the experience and knowledge of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers like Matt Kenseth. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team can now tap into the experience and knowledge of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers like Matt Kenseth. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Rusty Jarrett)

thrilled to bring FRR on board.

“At the outset,” David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development said, “when we started talking to Furniture Row, when Joe Gibbs and Barney Visser and ourselves have dinner, I sensed there was a level of trust in each other and a shared value structure that could allow this collaboration to actually succeed. So having said that, on paper it all looked good, but it’s up to the men and women in both of those shops to execute that collaboration.”

Truex, who had driven Toyotas during his days at Waltrip Racing, was not surprised by the move. He understood it, but he was also a bit concerned by it.

“Barney’s looking out for his future,” the driver said. “In every way possible, this deal was better for his race team. Competitively, financially and long-term future, it looks better. I can’t really remember when it was (that the move was officially announced) but I’m going to say it was mid summer. When we were really hitting our stride and then it was like, ‘Ooo, man, this, I’m a little nervous about this’. We were running so good and things were going so well, you got to be crazy, right? That’s kind of what everybody thought.”

Crazy, it turns out, like a massively successful business owner.

Nine races into the season, the team has yet to win a race but has had fast cars in just about every start. The fastest of those cars may have been the one Truex drove in the season-opening Daytona 500. He finished second – just inches behind Denny Hamlin of the Gibbs team.

“I think we have, actually, more speed” than a year ago, Truex said. “Obviously the finishes have not come as easy as they did last year, especially early in (the 2015) season, but with all we had to change in the off season…every single thing we do that has to do with building the cars, running the cars, it’s all new stuff.”

Also new and in need of dealing with, was the tricky low-downforce rules package NASCAR rolled

Martin Truex Jr. raced Denny Hamlin to the finish line in Daytona this year. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

Martin Truex Jr. raced Denny Hamlin to the finish line in Daytona this year. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Rusty Jarrett)

out for the 2016 season.

Truex, who thinks he could have/should have have won twice already this season, said, “To take all that into consideration and look at where we are right now, you have got to be ecstatic,”

Visser, apparently, is ecstatic.

“I know from Barney Visser’s standpoint, he thinks we’re ahead of where he thought we would be,” Truex said. “He thought it would take us 10, 15 races to get rolling. To come out of the box like we did, he’s pretty surprised. It’s always good when the owner’s happy, right?”

The bosses at TRD sound happy, as well. Wilson said he was amazed that Furniture Row had  competitive cars ready to roll by Speedweeks.

To almost win the 500? “What Martin Truex Jr. did (in Daytona) was huge in saying that he wants to

Furniture Row Racing's people are having to deal with massive changes in 2016. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Furniture Row Racing’s people are having to deal with massive changes in 2016. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

be on this team. I’m incredibly impressed,” Wilson said. “I thought he won the race actually. It wasn’t until I saw the live timing and scoring that I realized that Denny won it.”

This weekend, the Cup series heads to Talladega which, like Daytona, is a plate race. It’s a place where Truex ran well a year ago. And it’s a place at which he expects to do well this Sunday.

“The reason we had two top-10 finishes at Talladega last year is that we stayed out of the mess and were able to maintain our position at the end,” he said. “The one thing that has me jazzed about Talladega is that we will have Toyota power for the big track. Looking back at Daytona, I believe four of the first five cars had Toyota powerplants.”

And one of those five had a driver who has not only survived personal and professional tragedies, but has prospered because them.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, April 29 2016
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