LAS VEGAS – Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on to something.
When NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver – for the last 15 years – met Martin Truex Jr. for the first time, the connection and friendship made was instant and far-reaching.
Not only was the love of racing there from the start, but it led to a moment that was 13 years in the making.
Thanks to an eight-win season in 2017 – including the most important one at Homestead-Miami Speedway – Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion.
It all came together on a night at the Wynn in Las Vegas when his friend, mentor and hunting buddy took his own racing helmet off for the final time.
When it all came down to it, Truex’s championship became a shining reality mainly through simple persistence.
“We’ve been buddies ever since we started racing together,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his friend. “We kept after each other and stayed in touch. He’s super quiet, but when he does talk, it’s worth listening to, for sure.”
Truex Jr.’s performance in 2017 did a lot of the talking for him. When he won for the first time on the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, that victory was overshadowed, if only a little, by the post-race scuffle between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
“Winning that early in the season really set the tone for us,” Truex Jr. said. “It gave us the confidence that we were locked in the playoffs and we knew we were doing the right things. Our cars were fast, and everyone was doing what they needed to do. … I still don’t know that it’s 100 percent sunk in.”
Adding to the joy, Truex and his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, received the Myers Brothers Award from the National Motorsports Press Association. For the last two years, Pollex has been in a battle with ovarian cancer, but she has teamed with the 2017 champion to give back to help children in their own cancer fights.
Pollex wasn’t about to miss the moment, even if it required approval from her doctor to miss a round of chemotherapy.
“The championship means so much to me personally because of everything we’ve been through,” Pollex said. “When Martin lost his ride with MWR (Michael Waltrip Racing), we didn’t know if he’d ever be relevant in the sport again or if he’d ever find a home.”
When that came after the 2013 season, Pollex was the one being the rock of support. Two years later, Truex Jr. was in that role.
The relationships formed since then only made the winning moment that much sweeter.
“It’s been a crazy ride, and we feel so blessed to be here,” Pollex said. “Whether or not I’m still battling my disease, this weekend is all about the team and their accomplishments. I’m proud to stand beside them and enjoy it.”
Before the week in Las Vegas began, Pollex had a choice – stay home for another round of chemo or travel for a once-in-a-lifetime moment. She had a doctor who understood what it all meant.
“My doctor agreed to let me skip a week so I could come out here and be a part of this,” said Pollex, who got her next round of chemo when she returned home. “The traveling is hard and the fatigue is real.”
Winning a championship may not be the cure for cancer, but it certainly provided a little extra joy for everyone involved. Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garrone admitted watching the closing laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway – Truex Jr.’s most important win of the season – wasn’t easy.
“My heart should have been out of my chest the last 10 laps,” he said. “Of all the races we’ve had, I’ve never been uncomfortable. I was literally uncomfortable. My heart was pounding so hard.”
In the end, if there was one calming effect conveyed by Martin Truex Jr.’s 2017 championship, it came from the three simple words he said to his crew over the radio after each of his wins.
Never give up.
For any person struggling to find success or simply to survive a battle with an insidious disease like cancer, they have a new example of inspiration in Martin Truex Jr., a win-win for everyone.
Follow Tom Zulewski on Twitter @TommyZee81 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.