It’s almost inconceivable that for all the hype, all the bumps and nicks and letdowns and loss – more on that later – that this story begins with a man on his back porch, beer in hand and nothing in mind.
Nothing but worry, at least. And regret. And uncertainty, doubt, angst and anger. But yeah, when all that darkness is swirling around between your ears, it all cancels out, leaving nothing.
The man has just lost his job. That, objectively, stinks. And so he migrated to the back deck of his Lake Norman home, looked out at the Sunday night sky and let the darkness gradually wash over him. And swigged a cold beer, too. Why the heck not? It’s not like he had work the next day.
The door cracks open, and the man’s girlfriend walks out and over to console him.
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“I just remember her coming out and saying, ‘Everything happens for a reason. Don’t worry, it’s gonna go OK,’” Martin Truex Jr. says now, thinking back. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ under my breath, like I can’t believe this is happening.”
That was Sept. 8, 2013. Truex might not remember the date exactly, but you best believe he remembers that night. Only to him, it’s just, “the night after Richmond.”
At the Richmond race, a scandal involving Truex’s teammates and staff members at Michael Waltrip Racing ended up costing the team its principle sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts. NAPA sponsored Truex’s car, and when it became obvious that they would pull out of their contract with MWR, Truex lost his ride.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, what am I gonna do?’” Truex says. “Thought there was a chance I may never race in the Cup Series again.”
The memory ends there. That’s enough, anyway.
Truex’s girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, proved almost prophetic. Truex ended up signing with tiny Furniture Row Racing, based not in NASCAR’s hub around Charlotte, but more than a thousand miles west in Denver, Colo. They struggled, mightily, for most of 2014. Then in 2015, they broke out. Truex made it all the way to NASCAR’s championship race that season ... only to come in last of the four contenders.
This season he’s back, and rather than creeping in like he did two seasons ago, he slammed on the gas pedal and burst into the season finale this season as the favorite.
But the story isn’t over. Just making it to the Championship 4 is good. But they don’t give out participation medals at this point in the season. It’s trophy or bust.
As for what that trophy would mean for Truex? Well, a bunch of things. His life’s work has led him to this point, but tribulation has marked his path these past few years. That night in 2013 was only the first.
A win though, a win would make it all ... not OK, but at least it would be a payoff for the pain. There’s no erasing the past. All there is is growth. Getting up each day and trying your best. Truex has that part down.
Now for the payoff.
‘Try to get it for her’
The phone call came way too soon.
Truex and Pollex had been home for a half hour, maybe 40 minutes. They’d been out all day before that at a Lake Norman hospital. Pollex, who’d been complaining of pain and not feeling well for months, had been to a phone book’s worth of doctors and specialists.
Finally, Truex’s business manager had suggested they see Dr. Ryan Heider, a surgical specialist. So the couple went in, doctors ran some scans, and sent Pollex back home.
Then Truex’s business manager called a short time after they returned, telling them Heider said to return to the hospital immediately.
“I’m like, ‘What the hell?’” Truex says. “I knew that’s not good.”
Then the diagnosis: Pollex had Stage 3 ovarian cancer. The odds weren’t in her favor. According to the National Cancer Institue, just over 14,000 women will die from complications related to ovarian cancer in 2017. Less than half of patients live five years past their diagnosis.
“I was in shock. Like, ‘Did you just say what I think you said?’” Truex says. “But Sherry, man, she was like, ‘What do I have to do?’ Snap. Just like that.”
In the years since her diagnosis in 2014, Pollex has been through numerous surgeries, grueling rounds of chemotherapy, and bouts of pain throughout. Truex, who began dating Pollex in 2005, has been with her every step. But it’s impossible for that burden not to weigh on him.
So when Truex won in Charlotte earlier in the playoffs, his sixth victory of seven this season, it made sense that he broke down in Victory Lane. Pollex, who was in the midst of a new round of chemo, wasn’t at the race to celebrate with him.
“When you get out of the car after a big win, you start thinking about all that stuff, and that’s when it hits you,” Truex said that afternoon. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks, and it hit me today in Victory Lane, and all of a sudden you can’t talk.”
But Pollex is in Homestead this weekend, and if Truex can clinch a title on Sunday, finally they’ll get to celebrate in Victory Lane together.
“She doesn’t want me racing to get this championship for her,” Truex says, “but I’m definitely going to try to get it for her.”
‘They’re all worthy reasons’
It would be emotional if those heartbreaks were all Truex and his No. 78 team had to handle. Wouldn’t that be nice?
As if. You can barely list all the setbacks this team has had the past few seasons.
Earlier this year, crew chief Cole Pearn’s best friend died unexpectedly from a bacterial infection. A month ago, the night before the playoff race at Kansas, team fabricator Jim Watson was out with the team and suffered a fatal heart attack. Then team owner Barney Visser, the one originally responsible for giving Truex a second chance in racing, had a heart attack of his own two weeks ago. He had successful bypass surgery, but the recovery is so intensive that he won’t even be at Homestead to watch his star driver compete for his first championship.
“It’s been kind of wild just to see all the things that we’ve had to deal with, but that’s part of life,” Truex says. “It makes us stronger. It helps us block out pressure in big situations, like this weekend, like racing for a championship.”
Right. Back to the championship. See how easy it is to get bogged down in all the other stuff life has in store? Imagine living it. Then imagine having your every word, your every move broadcasted and dissected to millions of fans worldwide. That’s Truex’s life.
But for all the pain, all the loss, you’ll never hear Truex complain. No woe-is-me, no whining. Just resilience. Occasional tears, sure, but resilience.
So, is there one thing that rises to the top, though, one motivation that trumps the rest?
“Man, you know, I don’t know,” Truex says. “I think they’re all worthy reasons.
“I want it. I want it for my dad, who got me started in racing. I want it for Sherry, just so she can celebrate for a night, have fun, and forget about all she’s been through. I want it for my team, because I feel like they’re the best in the business and they deserve it. I want it for my owner, because he’s not able to come to the track because he had a heart attack. There’s tons of good reasons, you know?
“But at the end of the day ... I love to be successful on the race track, just because it’s what I’ve lived for my whole life. So I guess winning it for me would have to trump all of them. All the effort I’ve put in, all the ups and downs that I’ve been through, to finally come out on the very, very top, would be surreal.”
Truex has as good a chance as anyone. But for all the hardships life has dealt him, he won’t let himself get caught up in the hype of this weekend. He’ll wait until it’s final, until he’s standing in Victory Lane, Pollex and Pearn by his side and Visser blowing up his phone. Then he’ll pick up that trophy, the one that nobody could have anticipated after everything he’s been through.
“I don’t want to picture it yet,” Truex says. “I want to wait until it happens.”
NASCAR Cup Series championship race
When: 3 p.m.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Ford Ecoboost 400
Distance: 267 laps, or 400.5 miles
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway, a 1.5-mile, paved oval in Homestead, Florida
Who is eligible: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr.. All have won Cup series championships except Truex Jr.