This year's NASCAR feel-good story continues. Last year, it was Kyle Busch bouncing back from grievous injuries to finally claim a long-awaited championship.
This year, it's Martin Truex Jr. bouncing forward from a decade's worth of career doldrums and bad luck.
After yet another butt-whipping win on Sunday, Truex has become the consensus favorite to win the Sprint Cup. At the Dover International Speedway, he had the added bonus of winning on the track closest to his hometown of Mayetta, N.J., and in front of hometown fans who rode a chartered bus to see him race.
The victory was the fourth for Truex after 12 full seasons in which he has never won more than one race per year and had only three victories total. He's been known as a clean, consistent driver with a lot of friends in the garage -- but not for winning.
"It's just things are clicking right now," said Truex "We've got confidence, we've got momentum, and we're just rolling with it and taking it one week at a time, and hopefully we can continue this for seven more weeks."
Where Busch learned how much support he had among his teammates and others in the garage during his recovery from a broken leg and foot, Truex's metamorphosis has been bolstered by the recovery from ovarian cancer of his longtime partner, Sherry Pollex.
These days, when the bad luck hits or mistakes cost him victories -- or he loses the season-opening Daytona 500 by less than a foot -- he continues to stay focused on the big picture after participating in her successful fight for life.
With Pollex accompanying him on each trip to victory lane, the championship picture now looks better for Truex and Furniture Row Racing than any other team. Drivers who are strong on tracks of 1 mile and 1.5 miles are those who do well in the postseason Chase, and Truex has been superb at that configuration this year. On Sunday, Truex led 187 laps in the Chase elimination race at Dover's "Monster Mile," winning by 7.5 seconds.
A lot of attention was focused on which four drivers would be eliminated during the 400 laps. The answer was Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Chris Buescher. Austin Dillon was the lone driver who entered the race below the cutline to make it to the Round of 12 due to Larson's mechanical woes and a pit road penalty. Three-time champion Stewart, who entered with a points deficit, couldn't keep up with Dillon and finished 13th.
But what does it matter who advances the way Truex is running?
The victory gave Truex two in three races thus far in the Chase, starting with his win at the Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile track. In early September, Truex won at the Darlington Raceway, another of the intermediate speedways. The driver and Furniture Row are next headed back to the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the opening race of the Round of 12 on Saturday night. At the last race on the 1.5-mile track in May, Truex led a record 392 of the 400 laps in NASCAR's longest race.
Given that Charlotte is the first of five more tracks of 1 or 1.5 miles, including the Homestead-Miami Speedway, scene of the championship finale, there's little doubt about who is the driver to beat for this year's title.
Defending champ Busch, the runner-up at Dover, led 102 laps driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, but didn't consider his car to be nearly fast enough to handle Truex, who at one point led by 12 seconds. "He was off in his own zip code," said Busch.
Furniture Row Racing is affiliated with Joe Gibbs Racing, which means it uses chassis built by JGR and shares chassis set-up information on the same computer platform. But, obviously some trade secrets remain. The other three JGR Toyota entries of Matt Kenseth (fifth), Denny Hamlin (ninth) and Carl Edwards (14th) failed to lead a lap.
"We've got really fast cars just missing the boat a little bit on something the (Furniture Row) team has figured out," said Busch.
The Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team might have something for the runaway Toyota, but yet another mistake on pit road cost six-time champion Jimmie Johnson a shot at the victory. After leading 90 laps, a penalty called when a pit crew member went over the wall too soon cost Johnson a lap that he never made up. Johnson, a 10-time winner at Dover, was trying to get his lap back from Truex in the final 25 laps of the race, but couldn't make a pass.
It hasn't been this way previously for Truex. A driver who steadily indexed himself up to speed, he has always been consistent. But once he figured out how to win -- his first victory came at Dover in 2007 -- his Dale Earnhardt, Inc. team began to disintegrate, eventually merging with Chip Ganassi's operation and then folding. Truex went through a similar process at Michael Waltrip Racing, where he helped turn the team into a winning outfit before a cheating scandal robbed Truex of a shot at the Chase in 2013.
After his sponsor elected to leave MWR, Truex moved to the single-car team of Furniture Row, where his first season following former champion Kurt Busch was a disaster. Once Cole Pearn was moved from his engineering position to crew chief for 2015, the team has been on a roll.
Truex won at the Pocono last year and went all the way to the final round of the Chase in Homestead. Team owner Barney Visser elected to switch from Chevrolet to Toyota for the 2015 season and the association with JGR brought a significant upgrade.
"We've got a strong team, and we didn't make it to Homestead last year for no reason," said Pearn. "I really feel like we're in better equipment this year."
The crew chief said it's always a solid day's work when you beat Johnson at Dover. "We were good," Pearn said, "but (Johnson) was just as good. I mean, at the end of the day, when you come to Dover you're going to have to beat Jimmie Johnson, and luckily it didn't come down to that being that close."
Consistent with his nice-guy image, Truex is relatively low key about his prospects.
"We're not going to change who we are," he said. "We didn't do that before the Chase started. We just got hot and we got momentum, and hopefully we don't lose it. I mean, I don't know how we got it, I don't know how to keep it. I just know that I think we're going to continue to approach these races the same way, and hopefully it works out for us."