Both personally and professionally, 2014 was a year to forget for Martin Truex, Jr.
The Mayetta, NJ, driver managed just one Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in 36 starts last season in the No. 78 Furniture Row Raving Chevrolet; a car that had qualified for the Chase a year earlier with driver Kurt Busch. He finished 24th in the championship standings, by far the worst showing of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career.
There were even greater challenges off the race track. In August, longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with advanced, Stage III ovarian cancer, undergoing a grueling regimen of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Truex called the seven months that ensued "without a doubt" the toughest of his life, saying “nothing else comes close.”
If the opening week of the 2015 season is any indication, there are brighter days ahead.
Pollex returned to Daytona International Speedway last week, looking hale and hearty after successfully completing her treatments in mid-January. Truex also returned to form, guiding his Furniture Row Chevrolet to a runner-up finish in the Sprint Unlimited, a fifth-place showing in his Budweiser Duel qualifier and an eighth-place showing in the Daytona 500 that could easily have been a win.
"Last year is in the rear view mirror," said Truex prior to Sunday’s 500. "We're looking ahead, and I feel good about the direction for this season.”
Truex started 10th Sunday, running near the front of the pack throughout the day, despite a pit road speeding penalty and fueling issues that dropped him to the rear of the field on two different occasions. Muscling his way quickly back into contention, Truex took the lead with just 12 laps remaining and appeared ready to contend for the victory. He was fourth when the caution flag flew for a crash involving Justin Allgaier and Ty Dillon, pushing the race into overtime.
"I sure hated to see that last caution come out," said Truex afterward. "We didn't restart in the lane I was hoping for. We were one spot away from being in the catbird seat (before the caution flag flew), but restrictor-plate racing is all about circumstances.”
Shuffled back on the ensuing restart when the inside line struggled to get organized behind front-row starter Denny Hamlin, Truex was eighth when a crash involving Jeff Gordon and Kyle Larson prompted NASCAR to end the race under caution. While disappointed not to contend for the win, the Furniture Row Racing driver climbed from his car smiling.
"We almost threw away this race a couple of times,” he said. “But we came charging back with a powerful race car and good pit strategy by crew chief Cole Pearn. When you can come back like the way we did it, says something about the makeup of this team. It was a lot of fun to run up front and to be in contention at the end."
"This was by far the best Speedweeks of my career,” said Truex. “We were consistent, with three Top-10 finishes and no major damage to the car. The road crew did a great job in every aspect of what was needed the past 10 days. And a big shout out goes to the guys back at the Denver shop for giving me awesome race cars.
"The work we did over the winter, the testing toward the end of last season and the team changes we implemented all make me feel really good about 2015. Last year, we finished 43rd in the Daytona 500. Today, it was eighth and I felt our car was better than what the finish showed."
After ending 2014 on a competitive upswing with a fourth-place finish at Kansas Speedway, a seventh at Dover and a 12th in Phoenix in his final eight starts, Truex said he is re-energized and ready to return to form this season.
"We started to turn and our luck got a little better," he said. "We were nowhere near where we wanted to be, but we were better. In terms of confidence and communication, we all got on the same page together."
After a dominant run Sunday on NASCAR's grandest stage, both Truex and Pollex are – quite literally -- back in the game.
Their post-race smiles said it all.