This story writes itself, right?
A man overcomes incredible odds — stares the end of his career in the face, watches his life partner fight for her life against an evil disease, joins the smallest team there is, with neither history nor prestige — and wins a championship in the sports he loves. There’s the trophy, confetti. A Hollywood-esque kiss immortalized in photos and our collective conscious.
Happily ever after.
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A true happy ending would have been no ending, running that saga back year after year to collect more glory, more success. Leaving that small place where you succeeded better than you found it.
But what if you can’t? What if, after the greatest professional triumph of your life, everything around you shutters and closes? What if all the people who built you up, who are responsible for your life’s crowning achievement, all disperse, scattering in a million different directions?
What, then, does it take to find happily ever after?
Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t know.
And really, how could he?
A year ago this weekend, Truex won his first Cup Series championship for tiny Furniture Row Racing, a Denver, Colo.-based shop hundreds of miles from North Carolina’s NASCAR bloodlines. The celebration, understandably, was epic.
Then Furniture Row lost its sponsorship. Replacements never arrived. A year after reaching the pinnacle of a multi-billion dollar sport, the champion’s team had no choice but to close down.
And now Sunday, whether Truex repeats as champion or not, will be the team’s final race.
“You know, I don’t know,” Truex said plainly this week when asked what he’ll miss most. “I haven’t done it yet. It’s going to be hard to say.”
Truex enters Sunday’s title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a tremendous opportunity: Become the first driver to repeat as champion since Jimmie Johnson in 2009 and 2010 ... and also, send the team that built him up out on top.
Not that Truex would even openly admit that second bit.
“Martin, man, I don’t think it matters,” FRR president Joe Garone said. “He’s hungry. He wants to get out here and close off his time with Furniture Row on a high, and I’m sure he’s looking forward to his future, as well. This will be a great closure here at Homestead, I believe.”
On Tuesday, the team posted a video to social media of themselves shipping off this final No. 78 car to Homestead. It was short, less than a minute long, but you got everything you needed out of it.
You saw smiles. You saw sadness. Hugs, and then a final wave goodbye.
And all the while, raw emotion practically pouring through the screen.
“I think for all of us Sunday night it’s going to be that way, too,” Truex said. “You know, you just get tunnel vision in this sport, and you get so focused on what you’re doing. Short week, short turnaround, we’ve got to build this car. We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do that. We’re not good enough here. We’ve got to figure out how to do this better. You just get so focused in on doing your normal routine, but it finally all caught up to them.
“It hit them at that moment when they all looked around and said, ‘That’s the last car we’re sending out of here to go to the race track.’ I can certainly understand it.”
But Truex is too experienced — both in race car driving and the handling of human hardship — to let any emotions overwhelm him.
And “emotions” is all-encompassing. The sadness of the situation is clear. But anger? Joy? He must also balance those.
First, the anger. Perhaps frustration is the better term, but the point is still the same. Three weeks after Joey Logano shoved him out of the way to win at Martinsville, Truex still has a bone to pick.
“I’m not approaching this race any differently because of that,” Truex said, “but I still remember what happened, and I’ll use that to my advantage this weekend.”
Truex went on to say that he “absolutely” will race Logano differently than Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, his other two championship contenders, especially if the title is on the line late.
And then there’s the joy, tied to the chance to become a two-time champion. Only 15 other drivers in NASCAR history have two Cup Series titles to their name, and Johnson is the lone active one.
That too must be weighing on Truex’s mind, right?
“The thought of that and the names, I’ve talked about it before,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine it actually happened, right? Like it happened, but it’s hard to look at my name in that list of other champions and believe it. Sometimes I feel like I’m still dreaming.
“That’s something you look at when you retire, or down the road you might look back and say, ‘Man, that second one, that really changed things for me.’”
Of course, regardless of the outcome Sunday, much will change for Truex after this weekend. The race shop, his teammates, the people who gave him a chance at reclaiming his career. Here one day, and then suddenly not.
So come Sunday, he’ll slide once more into that car that has trekked from the Rocky Mountains to the race track. He’ll drive, with frustration and sadness swirling in his head, joy still on the horizon, and do whatever he can in his final race with Furniture Row.
But the best send-off he could give them, and himself?
“I think no matter what, we’re going to celebrate and have a good time with it,” Truex said. “Hopefully, it’s up on stage with a big trophy.”
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