Goosebumps. Hundreds of them came across my arms despite the south Florida heat.
I didn’t mind them. Very few times in life does one truly appreciate a special moment while it’s happening. But standing on pit road at Homestead-Miami Speedway as Martin Truex Jr. roared off Turn 4 to his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, the cries of his spotter, Clayton Hughes, in my headset got to me.
“How about this, Martin Truex Jr.: You are the 2017 champion, baby! You are the champion, baby!”
Even writing it now and thinking back on the moment, it brings me the same joy. Sportswriters love a good story. Truex, though, has been a great story. Ending the season as the champion was his crowning moment and for the sport, as well as all those who cover it, it was the perfect storyline.
Truex was the favorite, both sentimental and statistical. The 37-year-old and all those around him succeeded despite what could have been numerous distractions: a FRR team member, Jim Watson, passing away the night before the Kansas race. Crew chief Cole Pearn’s best friend dying. Truex’s girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, continuing to battle ovarian cancer. Team owner Barney Visser suffering a heart attack during Phoenix weekend and undergoing bypass surgery.
On the track, the No. 78 Toyota had been, by far, the class of the field. In 36 races, Truex won eight times and put together an average finish of 9.6.
In the playoffs, Truex was untouchable. Four wins in 10 races. Just one finish worse than fifth – a crash at Talladega resulted in a 23rd. And to keep with the numbers game, Truex’s average finish over the last 10 weeks was an astounding 4.3. Oh, he also led 2,253 laps this year.
Truex not only whopped his competition, but also didn’t let them get back up.
Heading to Miami late last week it was only natural to wonder what would keep Truex from finishing the job. In NASCAR, the term ‘lovable loser’ is applied to many drivers and Truex has undoubtedly carried the label for much of his career. What would cause his latest heartbreak?
And yet, during my time on pit road watching the monitors as closely as everyone else during the final laps, it became evident this was a different driver. A different man.
Truex was not fazed by the pressure of the weekend. Crumbling as one of the best in the business in Kyle Busch hounded him corner after corner for the final 15 laps was never a thought.
At the white flag, Truex said he knew it was over.
“Over,” he deadpanned in the media center. But when Hughes started screaming, that’s when Truex’s walls came down.
“I just started crying,” he said. “I couldn’t even talk. I had no idea what to do. I literally held it together completely, 100 percent, I’m not BSing you. White flag was like, ‘All right, I’ve got this, they’re done, game over.’ And I nailed the last lap exactly the way I nailed the lap before that and literally as soon as I see the checkered flag and Clayton started yelling, I was done.
“I couldn’t think of anything. Complete junk. I don’t know how to explain it. Waterworks. It’s crazy.”
With an elimination-style format that leaves just one race to decide a champion from four contenders, it’s very easy for the season’s best driver not to wind up hoisting the trophy. Truex was this season’s best driver and, while it may not be politically correct to say, he deserved to win the championship.
Fittingly in mid-November, in the same state where the season started, in the same race the man who gave him a shot in the Xfinity Series (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) retired from the sport and on the same type of track (1.5 miles) at which Truex stomped the competition all year, Truex finished it off. And he did so by leading 78 laps.