With all the talk about young guns in NASCAR, who would have thought the hottest driver in the paddock would have turned 39 on Saturday?
Martin Truex Jr. is a throwback to racers of old, guys who didn’t come into their prime until their mid-to-late 30s. And that’s when these road warriors would finally get their shot on the Cup tour.
Sure, Truex was a late bloomer, but he’s never been better.
Truex was anything but an overnight sensation. The two-time Xfinity Series champion graduated to the Cup series in 2006. He was 25. Truex’s first win came the following year with Dale Earnhardt Inc.—as did his first entry into what was then the Chase. But 2008 signaled the beginning of the end for DEI. Truex floundered under the Ganassi banner. He scored just one top-five finish with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing before joining Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010.
Truex’s move to Toyota—and MWR—marked his third team in five years. He endured a six-year drought before scoring his second-career win in 2013. Truex didn’t set the world on fire during his tenure at MWR but he proved he was capable of earning poles and qualifying for the postseason under the direction of crew chief Chad Johnston.
As MWR imploded late in the 2013 season, Truex found himself scrambling again. Although there were no options in NASCAR’s powerhouses, Kurt Busch’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing opened the door for Truex at Furniture Row Racing.
Barney Visser’s Denver-based team was special. A boutique shop with top engineers and an aspiring crew chief named Cole Pearn. The Canadian racer adopted an unorthodox approach in his signature black t-shirts. The No. 78 team did not mind being under the radar—and that suited Truex’s demeanor, particularly after he received the life-changing news that the love of his life, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2014.
Once Truex acclimated to the team—and Pearn was officially put in charge in 2015—the pair took off. Over the last five years, the duo has scored 21 wins, 12 poles, 62 top fives and 96 top 10s in 160 races. When it comes to consistency, Truex has improved his average finish from 16th over the course of his career to 11.36. And most important, Truex is a perennial championship contender who has advanced to the final four three times in five years and collected the NASCAR Cup in 2017.
“We are very fortunate to have a great relationship together,” Pearn said. “For sure, he's gotten better. I mean, I think that's one of the great things about him.
“I think that's what's so hard for rookies coming into the sport these days, is the fact that you got guys that are at the top of the sport that are always trying to get better themselves. I think that about Kyle Busch, I think that about Denny Hamlin. They're trying to get better all the time. When those guys continue to improve, you got to do the same.”
As a veteran who has excelled on a variety of race tracks, Truex has made the transitions to various versions of the Cup car over the last several years appear effortless—a task less experienced drivers might struggle with. While Truex didn’t come out of the gate with wins to start the season, he posted five top 10s—including two second-place results in the first six races of the season.
He has now won four of the last eight races.
“Martin has done a great job of that this year with all the rule changes, it's a different style of racing, a lot more downforce,” Pearn added. “You had no downforce last year to a ton of downforce this year. The fact that you can win in both configurations is really important.”
Truex has also proved he can win on a variety of tracks. Certainly, he’s stout on intermediates, where he has collected 11 of his 21 career Cup wins—including twice at Chicagoland Speedway where the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will race on Sunday.
Truex has won two of the last three races on the 1.5-mile track and finished fourth last year behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch.
But it would surprise no one if Truex had a belated birthday celebration in Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon.