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Martin Truex Jr. a singular sensation in NASCAR

Driver is putting one-car team on map

Martin Truex Jr. has always thought of New Hampshire Motor Speedway as “sacred ground.’’
Martin Truex Jr. has always thought of New Hampshire Motor Speedway as “sacred ground.’’ Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

The scene in Victory Lane last month at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway was as euphoric as it was emotional for Martin Truex Jr.

Although car owner Barney Visser, the driving force behind the single-car Furniture Row Racing team, was not at the race, the 35-year-old NASCAR Sprint Cup driver from Mayetta, N.J., was surrounded by those who had made victory possible and inspired him. Truex was flanked by team general manager Joe Garone, rookie crew chief Cole Pearn, and Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who last August was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Their presence at Truex’s side during the celebration made it all the more meaningful.

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It was Truex’s first win of the season (and third in 347 career starts), which punched his ticket into the 16-driver field for the 10-race, three-phase elimination Chase playoff format. It was his first in 40 combined starts for Visser’s far-flung team based in Denver, two time zones removed from NASCAR’s hub in Charlotte, N.C., where most teams are headquartered.

And it was the first career Cup victory for Pearn, who had supplanted Todd Berrier at the beginning of the season as crew chief of the No. 78 Chevrolet.

“All of it was just so great,’’ Truex said recently by phone from North Carolina. “There were different things I thought about it that made it special. Being in a single-car team and being that Barney hadn’t won in a few years.

“Just a group of guys that we have, to get them to Victory Lane, just felt good to me to see all their hard work pay off. We’ve been through a lot in a year-and-a-half together as a group. They all stuck behind me and we stuck together to get where we got.’’

By any measure, it was a long haul to get that victory.

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“If you look at how last year went, it was just a total disaster. I mean, everything we did was wrong. The performance wasn’t there and we just couldn’t gain any momentum,’’ said Truex, whose 17th-place effort at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night enabled him to remain entrenched in fifth place in the driver standings with 596 points, 96 behind series leader Kevin Harvick.

“But we stuck together as a group and everybody collectively worked together and continued to believe in each other. I think that’s what probably made me the proudest.’’

Jousting all season against the likes of super teams Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing, Truex’s victory struck a blow for the vanishing breed of single-car outfits.

“I think if you look at everything the way it works, it’s pretty amazing what Barney and everybody has been able to build out in Denver,’’ said Truex, who was signed by Visser in 2013 to drive the No. 78 Chevrolet after Truex’s primary sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, on his No. 56 Toyota at Michael Waltrip Racing cut ties with the team following a race-manipulation scandal, leaving Truex to leave MWR and search for a new ride.

“We have an affiliation with a big team with [Richard Childress Racing], so you could really consider us as RCR’s fourth team,’’ Truex said. “We work that closely together. At the same time, we’re still in Denver, and we’re still a single-car operation and there’s probably — I don’t know the exact number — but it’s roughly about 50 employees compared to somebody like [Rick] Hendrick who has 400-plus employees and a whole other satellite team with four teams at Stewart-Haas.

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“If you really think about it, it’s really amazing to see what they’ve done. I’ve just been lucky to be a part of it.’’

Truex’s season got off to a promising start in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, where he led 30 laps only to finish runner-up to Matt Kenseth.

“We needed this,’’ an emotional Truex said at the time. “The race was over once Kenseth pulled away from me. But we needed this. After the last year and a half that I’ve had, this satisfies a lot.’’

But Truex was far from done. He continued to show his little team’s incredible resolve and consistency, finishing in the top 10 in 14 of the first 15 races, including a runner-up finish to Harvick at Las Vegas. Truex is the first driver since Richard Petty in 1969 to start a Cup season with as many top-10 results over the same stretch of races.

He led the most laps of any driver in consecutive Cup races at Kansas (95 of 267), Charlotte (131 of 400), and Dover, Del. (131 of 405) but had little to show for it, finishing ninth, fifth, and sixth, respectively.

“Although we didn’t win, I don’t think we ever really got frustrated,’’ Truex said. “I think it was important for us to understand that those races didn’t work out the way we needed it to, but it wasn’t like we threw them away, made mistakes, or made bad decisions. It was just a matter of the stars didn’t line up.

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“I think it was important for us to stay positive. For us, I think it was a good thing to be running up front and leading all those laps. I don’t think we ever looked at it as a negative that we didn’t win. I think we looked at it as a positive that we were leading laps.’’

To no one’s surprise, Truex’s triumph at Pocono, which snapped a winless streak of 69 races, came after he led 97 of 160 laps, the most of any driver. To the boys back at the shop, it served as an exclamation point.

“We’ve had a lot of milestones this year for those guys out [in Denver], and that felt good to be a part of,’’ Truex said.

“To go out there and see everybody for a few days and just to see how pumped up they were and how excited they are for the rest of the year, it’s a really cool feeling.

“Fortunately, we were able to get that win out of the way and hopefully now we can continue to do that and win some more.’’

Truex would like nothing more than to win Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where his family has added to the rich tapestry of the quarter century of racing at the 1.058-mile oval in Loudon.

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Truex and his father, Martin Sr., both won races there in the old Busch North Series while younger brother, Ryan, won the K&N Pro Series East championship.

Truex fondly recalled idolizing Busch North drivers his father competed against, including Dave Dion, Kelly Moore, and the cigar-chomping Dick McCabe, the Irish Angel.

“Certainly, my Dad was [a hero], but New Hampshire was always their biggest race of the year,’’ said Truex, who broke into the Busch North circuit driving the family-owned No. 56 Chevrolet, winning 13 poles and five races, twice at NHMS.

“That was their Daytona, so I always kind of held New Hampshire as sacred ground just because of that. Winning races there has had a lot to do with me getting an opportunity to move down here and drive the Busch Series and it’s just been a special place for us.’’


Michael Vega can be reached at michael.vega@globe.com.