NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. dominating on NASCAR's stage(s)

By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
2016 Daytona 500 Runner-up Martin Truex Jr. waits to answer questions at Daytona 500 Media Day on February 22, 2017 in Daytona, Florida. File photo by Edwin Locke/UPI
2016 Daytona 500 Runner-up Martin Truex Jr. waits to answer questions at Daytona 500 Media Day on February 22, 2017 in Daytona, Florida. File photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | License Photo

Does NASCAR have a new version of Cale Yarborough on its hands in the form of Martin Truex Jr.?

Back in the days when he won three straight championships for Junior Johnson, Yarborough led an average of 3,527 laps each year during race seasons that were a mere 30 races long. These days, it's difficult to find drivers who have led more than 1,000 laps in a 36-race season.


Jimmie Johnson, for example, led 737 laps during his championship season last year. Kyle Busch led 1,379 during his abbreviated title season in 2015.

Truex has already led 1,115 laps this season and appears to be headed for more laps led than last year -- 1,809. If he breaks 2,000 in laps led, he'll be in the neighborhood of Kevin Harvick, who led an average of 2,215 during the seasons of 2014 and 2015.


But the Yarborough analogy is more than about laps led. Nobody has dominated races with such authority as Truex has done in places like Charlotte and Kentucky, where he lapped all but eight cars. Yarborough and Johnson took advantage of a rulebook that did not prohibit mid-race engine changes, allowing the driver to race hard at the front without worry that a blown engine would ruin his championship points. By contrast, Truex and his Furniture Row team are dominating in an era when low downforce and tight regulations are in place.

Sometimes it's hard to believe Truex doesn't have more than 10 victories during his career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It seems as if he's been consistently leading laps and running at the front of the field ever since when.

But it's just in the last three years -- since Truex Jr. was matched with crew chief Cole Pearn -- that he's been consistently at the front of the field and, in one instance, led more laps in the Coke 600 than any driver in history, 392 of 400.

Prior to Furniture Row Racing team owner Barney Visser putting him together with Pearn for the 2015 season, Truex had only two career victories and was considered more potatoes than meat. Always in the mix, yes, but rarely a winner.


It's only fair that Truex, who last year won four races and this year has won three after Saturday night's victory at the Kentucky Speedway, has finally found the right team and chemistry. He dominated at Kentucky, where he sometimes led by as much as 15 seconds en route to leading 152 laps. He had a hefty lead before a final caution forced him into an overtime restart -- which he also dominated despite well-worn tires versus eight other drivers on fresh rubber.

"Being in the right situation is a huge part of it," said Truex. "I mean, we've seen it forever for a long time. It's a lot about communication, it's about getting with the right group of people. You can have all the money in the world and all the best equipment and parts and pieces, and if you don't have the right guys together and the right driver together with all those guys, it's not going to be successful. I'm very lucky to be in the position I'm in. I've been on the other side of it."

At the start of his career, he went through the dissolution of Dale Earnhardt, Inc., followed by a stint at Michael Waltrip Racing, which imploded due to the team's involvement in the race manipulation scandal at Richmond, Va., in 2013. The team lost Truex's sponsor, NAPA, and he was on the street due to no fault of his own.


Truex thought his career might have been over even though he had fought hard to get himself onto a good team.

"You know, honestly, this team I'm with now, it was my only option at one point, and I thought, 'Oh, man, we'll see what we can do with it.' And here we are.," Truex said. "So sometimes it's just meant to be, and in this case it was. But it's everything. Without the right team, without the right people around you, it's hard to be successful, so I'm very thankful for the guys I have and what we have going on right now."

After one near-disastrous season with Furniture Row when he was paired with crew chief Todd Berrier, Truex is arguably the best driver in NASCAR -- especially when it comes to stage racing. He's won 13 stages and the playoff bonus points that go with them -- another point of domination reminiscent of Yarborough's three-year run from 1976 to 1978. The nearest driver to Truex's total of stage bonus points is Kyle Busch, who has four.

The Kentucky race was the second time this season that Truex swept all three stages. Only one point behind leader Kyle Larson in the overall standings, Truex is a candidate to win the 15 playoff bonus points as the regular season champion. If so, he would enter the playoffs with a one-race cushion of points. And he would likely continue winning stages during the 10-race playoffs, a further guarantee he'll make the final four bidding for the championship at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.


If there's a cloud on the horizon for Truex, it's the recent news that his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, has had a recurrence of health issues. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014, but subsequently emerged from treatment with the cancer in remission. In Victory Lane, Pollex was missing and Truex acknowledged she stayed home for surgery due to a recurrence.

It's difficult to predict how Pollex's health issues might influence Truex's title bid. If the past is prologue, it seems to both motivate him and help him keep a perspective on what happens on the track.

Last year, a rare blown engine at Talladega took Truex out of the running for the title despite his four victories. Asked after the Kentucky race what a title would mean, he made it clear his driving is more about professional accomplishment and not necessarily the most important thing in his life.

"Well, professionally it would mean everything," he said. "That's what I've worked my whole career for in racing is to be a champion, be a Monster Energy Series champion. It would mean a lot. It would be very rewarding. I would say that it wouldn't change me, wouldn't change who I am or it wouldn't really change my life, but it would be a hell of an accomplishment for my career."


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