Craig Murto: Truex Jr. is what NASCAR needed

Martin Truex Jr. is exactly what NASCAR needed; a feel-good story to take the sport into the off season.

Truex and the small Furniture Row team out of Colorado dominated the regular season, and in points systems of the past would have clinched the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship on points alone prior to the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But given the winner-take-all format of the championship round, nothing was given.

And in the end, Truex had to dig deep. The No. 78 with crew chief Cole Pearn atop the pit box dominated 1.5-mile tracks in 2017. But Homestead is a different animal. And although he qualified on the outside pole, he didn’t have the strongest car in the race.

That car belonged to Kyle Busch, who had an opportunity to win the race by good measure by splitting the final stage and only making it a one-stop run to the finish. But a caution caused ironically when his brother Kurt spun put an end to that strategy and gave Truex the lead for the final 35-lap sprint to the finish.

First he fended off championship contender Kevin Harvick, but once Busch got to his bumper with about 20 laps remaining, many thought it was over. But a combination of great driving by Truex as he changed his line searching for grip, and the fact that Busch used up his tires just getting to Truex, allowed him to win by about a half-second at the checkered flag.

Third was Kyle Larson, who may have had the best car and might have settled for third so as not to interfere with the championship battle.

Truex ended his season with eight wins, 19 top fives, 26 top 10s and 2,250 laps led during the season. Not bad stats for a driver who thought his career was finished at the end of 2013.

That was the year the two-time Xfinity Series champ drove for Michael Waltrip. But at the last race of the regular season, the Waltrip organization got caught instructing Clint Bowyer to spin his car to create a caution, and pitting Brian Vickers for no reason other than to help ensure Truex a place in the playoffs. NASCAR didn’t appreciate the manipulation, and after they banned Truex from the playoff roster, sponsors left the team and Truex found himself without a ride.

That’s when Barney Visser called and employed Truex to replace Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing.

But the season was sketchy at best, with Truex finishing 24th in points. But the worst part was when Truex’s girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Pollex is part of the Truex story. She still battles cancer, having had her second major surgery just a couple months ago. In total she’s had 35 chemotherapy sessions. But she was at Homestead to see her fiancé win and help celebrate.

Furniture Row got its act together with Truex when Pearn took the job as crew chief in 2015. In fact, 13 of the 15 Cup wins the 37-year-old Truex has in his career have come with Pearn, a hiring decision Visser doesn’t regret.

But the team owner was not at Homestead, yet another part of the story. On Nov. 4, Visser had a heart attack, and went under the knife for bypass surgery two days later. In fact, according to at least one media source, Visser’s doctor didn’t even allow him to watch the championship race, though he was given updates throughout.

Nothing is guaranteed with the current championship format in any of NASCAR’s top divisions. But if Truex had lost the championship, the outcry would have been deafening. Fans may not have accepted the outcome. It’s lucky for NASCAR that it ended as it did.

In fact, the Camping World Truck Series champion Christopher Bell and the Xfinity champion William Byron were the correct champions in their divisions as well. Lost in the championship hoopla is that Chase Briscoe won his first truck race, and Cole Custer grabbed his first Xfinity win.

The sad part of the Xfinity battle was Elliott Sadler’s post-race crying because Ryan Preece wouldn’t simply move over and give him a position near the end of the race. Sorry, Sadler, it’s called a race, and you have to earn the spot. Byron was able to make the pass when he got there; what was your problem?

NASCAR fans can now celebrate a worthy Cup Series champion, the feel-good story of the year.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.