NASCAR’s Next King Could Be Another Junior — But A Blue-State Driver Born To Run – Forbes
Misperceptions about NASCAR still smolder outside the sport like a burning cigarette in an ashtray at a body shop, among them that the cars are merely hurtling around in circles and that the best drivers have deep-fried names like Cole Trickle or Ricky Bobby.
Although he was already guaranteed entry to the next playoff round, Martin Truex Jr., showing skill and cunning, posted his seventh victory of the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season on Sunday to solidify his lead and close in on his first series championship. But his story takes a hard right from the norm.
Like Dale Earnhardt Jr., his teammate for his first two Cup seasons, Truex is the son of a race-car driver. But Truex, 37, grew up in Mayetta, N.J., only a few miles from the Jersey Shore and about 35 miles north of Atlantic City — not normally a place you’d include in NASCAR Nation.
Truex does not have a Southern drawl or even a Joisey rasp, but his voice carries the edge of a driver who has been around for a while. His first Cup ride was sweet, but he overcame personal and professional disappointment and setbacks later.
When he was a boy, Truex watched his dad race on weekends at Wall Stadium Speedway, which is close to Asbury Park, the gritty shore town immortalized by Bruce Springsteen. Then Truex began racing on the one-third-mile asphalt track as a teenager.
Since 1978, his dad has run a seafood business, Sea Watch International, and Truex was a full-time clammer after he graduated from high school. But he liked racing much better, of course, so he chased a career hard. His dad parked his racing career in part to help his son claw to the top.
They raced against each other once, in a Busch North Series race in 2000, and Truex Jr.’s motor broke down just as he was catching his dad. Truex Sr. handed his son the keys to his car a few weeks later, and by late 2004, Truex Jr. was driving a Cup car.
In his second full season driving for the team founded by the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., Truex, living on a house on Dale Jr.’s land, posted his first Cup victory in a 2007 race at Dover, Del. — the first by a driver from New Jersey in 49 years. But he did not win again until 2012.
By then, Truex had moved to a team owned by Michael Waltrip, but he won only that one race in four seasons. Then he bounced to the then-one-car Furniture Row Racing team — based in Denver, Colo., nowhere near a Cup track. His main sponsor made mattresses.
It appeared as if Truex was just hanging on, but he won a race in 2015 and then four races last year to qualify for what was then called the Chase.
His longtime girlfriend, the former racing publicist Sherry Pollex, has been impressed with his wherewithal, and she is a fighter, too.
In 2014, Pollex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The couple became advocates for pediatric and ovarian cancer patients and research. Pollex went into remission early in 2016, but the cancer returned, and Pollex had to undergo surgery this summer. But Truex kept winning.
His most recent victory came a day after a Furniture Row Racing fabricator, Jim Watson, 55, died of a heart attack when team members were out go-karting for fun near Kansas City. Truex dedicated the victory to Watson, and the team has pledged to continue to wear beards, like players in hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
And even as the sport scuffles to keep and find corporate sponsors, Truex should have another good shot next year: Bass Pro Shops and 5-Hour Energy announced last week that they planned to continue as co-primary sponsors of Truex’s No. 78 car.
Truex can still lose the championship, but his competitors would have to do a lot to beat him. He is the hottest driver among the eight still eligible for the title, with three victories in six races, and he has a sizable lead on the second-place driver, Kyle Busch.
Ray Evernham, Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, is from Hazlet, N.J. (and also drove as a teenager at Wall), but a driver from New Jersey has never won a Cup title. Truex’s title run is now NASCAR’s most compelling storyline — he’d be a new champion who’d paid his dues.