DOVER, Del. -- It was as if all the things that have made the past few weeks so miserable for Martin Truex Jr. faded into the background. Rather than reliving that fateful night at Richmond, he greeted 800 fans at a benefit event. Instead of getting bounced out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he received honors from the mayor of his hometown and the governor of his home state. He was surrounded not by questions about his sponsor leaving, but physicians working in a new pediatric center his foundation helped to fund.
The week of the fall event at Dover International Speedway is always an important one for Truex, a native of the neighboring state of New Jersey, who hosts annual events benefiting his foundation in the days leading up to the race weekend. But it was likely never more welcome than this year, when on the heels of a crushing series of events -- beginning with him losing his place in the 10-race playoff, and ending with his sponsor announcing its intention to leave -- he received a warm and perhaps needed welcome in his hometown.
"Honestly, whether it's been good or bad, it's always nice to have things like that going on," Truex said Friday after opening Sprint Cup practice at the Monster Mile.
"To see the excitement in people with what we've been able to do the last seven or eight years with the foundation, to see that amount of support ?. When you start talking to them, you're like -- racing? It will be there. I'll figure it out. It is what it is. Like I said a few weeks ago, it could always be worse. There's a lot of bad stuff going on out there, and we're just proud to play a part in trying to make things better for people, and tying to help when things are bad in people's lives."
It had to be a welcome change, given the chaos that has been Truex's professional life as of late. On the night of the regular-season finale Sept. 7, he grabbed the final Chase berth in a tiebreaker. Two days later, NASCAR ruled that his Michael Waltrip Racing team had manipulated the outcome of the race to help him do it, and responded with penalties that knocked Truex out of the playoff in favor of Ryan Newman. Last week, his car sponsor NAPA announced it would not return after this season, tossing both Truex's future and the status of MWR's third team into serious doubt.
So needless to say, he could have used a warm welcome from his hometown. And he received exactly that on Wednesday, when 800 people packed a lakefront park for his foundation's annual fan festival and benefit. The day was capped with a pair of unexpected surprises -- a special declaration from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and mayor John Spodofora proclaiming Martin Truex Jr. Day in Stafford Township, N.J.
"I was like -- I've got a street here already. Now I've got a day?" Truex said. "It's like, wow. I don't deserve all this."
Many in coastal New Jersey might disagree. Last year, the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation turned its focus to relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area where the driver grew up. Earlier this week, he handed out humanitarian awards to a pair of teachers who organized a group that started repairing storm-damaged houses before federal assistance or insurance reimbursements arrived. Wednesday he appeared at a hospital in Manahawkin, N.J., for the opening of a pediatric wing funded with a $250,000 grant from his foundation.
"It was awesome," Truex said. "The emergency center that were involved with has been five years in the making. Last time I was there was last year, and we were walking around in a concrete room with hard hats on. So it's come a long way. We were really blown away by how nice it was. When we first started talking to them it was going to be like two rooms, and it ended up being six, and it ended up being way more high-tech and expansive than it was supposed to be. That's all a nice bonus."
All told, the foundation's fan benefit and a sold-out golf tournament the next day were expected to raise around $350,000. For a little while, at least, Truex's annual return to the Garden State helped divert focus from more pressing matters -- like where he's going to drive next year. NAPA's looming departure leaves the future of the No. 56 team in limbo, and MWR has given its senior driver permission to look elsewhere for next year. The phone has been ringing, Truex said, though nothing has yet been decided.
"People are putting feelers out," he said. "I'm just trying to figure out what all my options are. What's the worst-case scenario, what's the best-case scenario? What's the next move to figure out what we're doing? Best-case scenario would be somebody calling us up and saying, 'Hey, we want to sponsor the 56 car next year.' Obviously, we're really hoping that happens, but we're not holding our breath, either."
Truex believes he still has unfinished business with his current group, which despite the chaos and uncertainty has maintained its level of performance -- as evidenced Friday, when the No. 56 car was second-fastest in opening practice and placed 10th in qualifying. The driver seems to have come to grips with the circumstances that turned his career upside down. Now the task is to stay focused and navigate the aftermath.
"Honestly, after it happened, I said, 'OK, nothing I can do about it now. All I can do is just try to move forward and try to figure it out,'" Truex said. "It's definitely not the ideal situation, but I think we as a group have dealt with it well. Certainly my team has done a great job staying focused despite all the questions, not knowing what they're doing next year and all that. It's really tough on those guys. They've really stayed focused and done a nice job for me."
Dover brings another opportunity to do just that -- Truex considers the 1-mile oval his home track, and he secured his first career triumph in NASCAR's premier series here in 2007. A blown engine scuttled his hopes in a June race Tony Stewart won after Jimmie Johnson was penalized for jumping a restart. But rolling into Victory Lane on Sunday would cap a happy homecoming indeed.
"We're here to win. We're not here to do anything else," Truex said. "We had a shot in the spring at winning, and we lost an engine. I felt like we were the only car there that could contend with (Johnson). He ended up giving it away on a restart, and I wish I'd have been there to pounce on that. Unfortunately, we weren't. But I think we're in good shape, and we should hopefully be able to make a run at it."
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