HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Not so long ago it appeared Martin Truex Jr.’s career as a competitive race car driver was done. Now, he’s a champion.
In a winner-take-all final race of the season, it ultimately came down to a battle between Truex and Busch. Busch looked to have the upper hand, as he tracked down Truex in the closing laps and appeared prime to make the pass and take the championship. But it never happened.
Truex, the best and fastest all season, kept Busch in his rearview mirror, taking the checkered flag and the title.
“It’s just an unbelievable dream come true,” Truex said after getting out of his car. “To think of all the rough days, the bad days … I never thought this day would come.”
“I was a wreck, thinking about all the tough days, the bad days,” he said later of his reaction after winning the title. “Times when I thought my career was over with. Times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me. The people who mattered did. My fans. My family. And I got with this team, they’re unbelievable. They resurrected my career. I don’t know what to say.”
Sunday marked the final race in the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr., possibly for Matt Kenseth and the last as a full-time driver for Danica Patrick. Junior finished an uneventful 25th, Kenseth made a brief run toward the front and Patrick crashed out.
As for the championship contenders, Truex was the only driver in contention without a title to his name. He’s a worthy champion in NASCAR’s redesigned playoff format that rewards drivers for their season-long performance.
Truex led the series in wins with eight and also had the most stage wins. With bonus points awarded for both, Truex amassed an astonishing amount of bonus points before the playoffs began. He had so many when the third round began — 69 — that he was able to clinch a spot in the final round with still one race to go.
The championship also caps a redemptive four years for Truex after he was ingloriously kicked out of the 2013 playoffs when a teammate spun and another pitted under team orders in the final race of the regular season to help ensure Truex would make it to the postseason. NASCAR called his team on the fix and revoked Truex’s berth in the postseason.
Truex’s sponsor NAPA left the team following the incident and, without a sponsor, Truex had no ride.
“There was a night where I sat on the porch and thought there was a chance I may never race in the Cup Series again, at least competitively,” Truex said Thursday. “It was late in the season, found out I wasn’t going to have a sponsor, obviously, for the next year. I didn’t know of any rides available. I didn’t know anything‑‑ I didn’t know of any opportunities at that point in time, so I knew it was definitely going to be a tough road. But got fortunate that [Furniture Row owner] Barney Visser called and we were able to put that deal together.
He got the gig with Furniture Row Racing — an arranged marriage of sorts, as Furniture Row was the only team looking for a driver at the time — and struggled through a trying first season with the team, an outlier in NASCAR. It makes its home in Denver, not Charlotte, N.C.
But once crew chief Cole Pearn joined the team before the beginning of the 2015 season, Truex took off. Thirteen of his 15 career wins came in the past three seasons, including eight this season. The final one of those came Sunday, the most important of his career.
As he took his victory lap, Truex received a celebratory fender tap from his old buddy, Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was the final race of Junior’s career. He finished 25th.
“What a story for Martin,” Earnhardt said.
And it absolutely is.
Truex entered the Cup Series in 2006 with a lot of fanfare. He’d won a pair of Busch (now Xfinity) Series titles and, driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., inherited a legion of fans simply through a relationship with the sport’s most popular driver. But in his first nine seasons he accumulated just two victories and was never a title contender.
Over the last two, after teaming with Pearn, he’s been arguably the best in the sport. And this season, there is no argument.
Martin Truex Jr. is the 2017 champion, a title he earned.