It’s been a busier than usual news week for NASCAR as it settles into its summer swing. A P1 penalty for Jimmie Johnson was rescinded Tuesday, Michael Waltrip Racing swapped personnel within its two Cup programs and NASCAR CEO Brian France expressed his support of a driver-organized council, one whose goal is to improve competition. At this point, Sunday’s race winner should be an afterthought.
Not this time. Not when it’s Martin Truex Jr.
There are so many pieces here that have made Truex’s win at Pocono a popular one. He drives for a single-car NASCAR program, Furniture Row Racing whose trip to Victory Lane Sunday was just their second in a decade of operation. A David in a sea of NASCAR Goliaths, FRR operates through the cash of owner Barney Visser, choosing to operate 2,000 miles away from the sport’s central hub of Charlotte, N.C. Based in Denver, a small group of 20- and 30-something dreamers, whose passion is racing and whose bond is each other, have been able to triumph against those with ten times the personnel and twice the funding. The No. 78 car, which once struggled to even qualify, has now led the most laps in four straight Cup races, led by a rookie crew chief in Cole Pearn, who was thrown into the fire, blind after former head wrench Todd Berrier was fired.
There’s Truex, the driver himself whose three-win Cup career has been marked by missed opportunities and bad luck. He followed mentor Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Cup, a seat earmarked at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., only for Earnhardt himself to leave the program. The team was sold, his opportunity slowly wilted and he moved on, jumping ship to Michael Waltrip Racing. A stint replacing Waltrip in the NAPA Toyota was admirable, peaking with a 2012 playoff appearance. But then, at Richmond the following fall a teammate’s intentional spin left a career spinning out of control. “Spingate,” the NASCAR scandal that cost Truex a 2013 bid in the Chase, left him an innocent victim, without a sponsor and a ride despite no knowledge of the plan for MWR to sneak him in the playoffs at all costs.
That left him scrambling, creating a last-minute “hope against hope” arrangement with FRR. It was a forced marriage that felt like it, producing a total of one lap led in 2014 along with a lone top-5 finish. The buzz entering 2015 was whether Truex would have a ride in Cup, let alone continue a partnership that clearly appeared to not be working out as anticipated. To turn that around this season, posting four top-5 results, 13 top 10s, a win and 486 laps led to date is one of the sport’s all-time comeback performances.
But the piece most important of all, one that transcends life and breathes life into others is the story of Truex’s long-term girlfriend, Sherry Pollex. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she’s spent the past year shedding organs, enduring chemotherapy and dealing with an uncertain future. A couple preparing for children and potential marriage was left instead with the emptiness of fear, the horror of treatment, a seismic earthquake the word “cancer” brings into one’s life.
Truex, given the option of six months off to help Pollex with her illness pressed on, inspired by her support and positive attitude through it all.
“She showed me what she was made of,” he said Sunday. “And I was like, wow, if she can do that, I can do this. This is easy. Honestly, just learned a lot from her and worked hard, never gave up, believed in myself the whole time, and that's what it takes.”
On top of all that, last week the driver’s grandmother passed away, leading to a somber weekend at Pocono. It all adds up to an emotional rollercoaster, an additional hill to climb in a Rocky Mountain Range of disadvantages. With these types of situations, for an athlete to overcome adversity the willpower involved can drain all but the strongest individuals.
“He's had more to overcome personally and professionally than probably anybody sitting in a seat right now,” Johnson claimed. “For him to still walk in the garage every week with a smile on his face, climb in the car, put in the effort, be the great guy he is I think speaks volumes.”
No wonder the six-time champ joined Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, and a long list of individuals fist-pumping Truex in Victory Lane. It’s the type of garage solidarity surrounding a victory the sport has rarely seen since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s marquee Daytona 500 moment in 1998.
The running theme in both of those instances was respect, both for the person and for the challenge they’ve overcome. But Truex won’t let success get to his head, because he sees the challenge Pollex goes through firsthand every single day. “Victory Lane Sunday, chemo Monday” was the reality they faced as Pocono wound down. An ugly disease, one that touches far too many in this world would not be squashed by a race-winning trophy.
But Truex, Furniture Row Racing and the people surrounding them fight the fight the best way they know how: through love and bonding around one another. It’s a mental advantage that makes them the Butler of this Fall’s Chase Roulette, a tournament underdog that can come close to pulling it off despite their many disadvantages. Would you bet against a program manned with immeasurable belief in themselves? It’s the type of fortitude champions are made of.
Either way, Truex and his team are forever a champion in their own right. That’s why his story still holds water midweek.
Through the Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: An Unappealing Appeals Ruling
News Tuesday a NASCAR Appeals Panel rescinded a P1 penalty toward Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team was confusing at best, frustrating at worst. The penalty, assessed for back-to-back written warnings, was based on an illegal side skirt pull at the All-Star Race followed by a failure in pre-qualifying inspection the following week. NASCAR chose to make Johnson pick the last pit stall at Dover for the infraction.
Except that disadvantage, one that could have cost Johnson his Dover victory, never happened. The team appealed (smartly) so that even if they had lost this week, picking the last pit stall at a place like Michigan would be inconsequential. The wide pit road there, as opposed to the narrow one at Dover’s Monster Mile, minimized the damage from an issue the appeals panel wound up striking down anyways.
Once again, the largest problem surrounding it all was the lack of information. NASCAR claimed the team failed pre-qualifying inspection at Charlotte. Why? How? What was wrong? Even in the appeal panel’s decision, we never found out although a “preponderance of the evidence” suggested the inspection should never have been deemed a failure. That decision, negating one of the written warnings and the resulting penalty came without more specifics.
It all adds up to a whole lot of gray in a modern world where sporting decisions need to be based in black and white. Every NFL penalty can be replayed over 50 cameras but NASCAR can’t provide even a simple written explanation for their own rules? That’s a problem. No wonder why so many fans claim conspiracy theories, claiming Johnson’s a cheater. NASCAR never gives the evidence to stop them.
SECOND GEAR: The Cream Rises to the Top
Truex’s win Sunday was all the more impressive considering the slate of top-5 finishers. Kevin Harvick, who tied a modern-era record with his 10th top-2 finish in the season’s first 14 races, ran second. (The only other driver to achieve such a feat: Bobby Allison in 1972). Sprint Cup win leader Johnson, one week removed from his fourth victory ran third, followed by Ford’s Joey Logano and Chevy’s Kurt Busch.
Those five cars, now with nine wins between them, have remained the main contenders to make NASCAR’s Final Four at Homestead. Even during a Pocono race filled with comers and goers, each found their way to the front and stayed there. It’s the same story virtually every week and it takes outside circumstances and bad luck for these drivers to disappear from view.
Expect that to continue over the near-term. Joe Gibbs Racing, whose drivers have tasted success in recent weeks still has a chance to crash the party. But Harvick, Busch, Truex, Johnson and Logano have carried so much raw speed compared to the rest of the competition they naturally rise to the top at almost any racetrack. Sunday’s win showcased just how much the others have to catch up.
THIRD GEAR: Teammates Turning Rivals? Yes, Please
For the second straight week, NASCAR found itself with “teammates” squabbling. One week after Dover caused XFINITY Series drivers Chris Buescher and Darrell Wallace Jr. to go at it we found Ryan Newman angry with satellite “teammate” A.J. Allmendinger. The ‘Dinger, racing Newman with his No. 47, lost control in turn 1 and bumped the No. 31 Chevy hard into the outside wall.
“It’s pretty obvious what happened” said Newman, whose 39th-place finish was also his first DNF of the season. “The No. 47 (Allmendinger) just ran out of talent. He has got one coming now.”
Finally, the sport has some emotions leaking out in a season where we’ve seen little on-track contact. In Newman’s case, like with Wallace, the victim is likely to hold a grudge. His Chase hopes may have been damaged, putting him on the defensive and the ‘Dinger wasn’t exactly his close friend. In a sport where time and proximity allows drivers to get along, far more than they did back in the day, reducing the importance and homogeny of the word “teammate” is rather refreshing.
FOURTH GEAR: Chase Picture Becomes More Intriguing
Truex was the 10th driver to win a race in 2015. That leaves six spots left in the Chase with 12 races remaining. Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, the top three drivers in the standings without a win, have a huge cushion on their competition. Gordon, whose anger with crew chief Alan Gustafson is boiling over, still has no chance of missing the playoff with retirement looming.
The next trio of Paul Menard, Aric Almirola and Ryan Newman also had a healthy lead over their rivals. However, each of them experienced Pocono adversity; the trio produced an average finish of 34th. That allowed Clint Bowyer to creep within 20 points of a spot with resurgent sophomore Kyle Larson also back in striking distance.
Now, we might have a race for those spots. Bowyer, whose MWR team gave him a new crew chief Tuesday, has been paired with unproven Billy Scott. It’s a wild card that could lead him to threaten the drivers above; Larson, meanwhile has the momentum of two top-10 finishes in a row. Further back, Kyle Busch continues to creep toward the top 30 in points and may very well win a race, tightening the Chase bubble among these drivers fighting for it. Add in Tony Stewart, who could win at any time, and this summer storyline should heat up.
Someone who’s now out appears to be Danica Patrick; her wreck Sunday, robbing her of a Pocono top-10 performance, left her 46 points back of Newman and without the experience or the consistency needed to catch up. The biggest question now becomes whether Stewart-Haas Racing will keep her beyond this season; sponsorship has not materialized yet to replace the departing GoDaddy.
Here we go again. NASCAR claimed Johnson’s team took four times to go through pre-race inspection at Pocono. Penalties could be forthcoming this week. How? Why? We don’t have more information than that. Surprise, surprise… Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who crashed Sunday, now has three straight finishes of 37th or worse. His No. 17 program, once a title contender with Matt Kenseth, can’t even crack the top 25 in points. It just seems like his tenure with Roush Fenway Racing is running out… Pocono’s tunnel turn produced plenty of criticism, bumps caused by a harsh winter worrying drivers their cars would simply spin out. But the wreckfest in turn 2 never materialized; for its part, the track has pledged to smooth out the area by the time teams return in August.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.