One year ago, a single bad outing at Talladega Superspeedway cost Martin Truex, Jr. and Furniture Row Racing a shot at the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. This time around, the team appears to be in no mood for a repeat.
Truex dominated Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, leading 152 of 274 laps and winning all three stages en route to his third victory of the 2017 campaign. And in doing so, he established himself as a clear favorite to claim the 2017 MENCS title.
In 18 races this season, no other driver has swept all three stages in a single event. Truex has now done it twice, after turning the trick at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March. Saturday’s performance was the most dominant in NASCAR since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when Truex clubbed the field by leading all but eight of 400 laps. Saturday, Truex claimed the checkered flag despite a final green-white-checkered flag restart that left him on old tires, while his closest pursuers pitted for new rubber. It didn’t matter, as Truex easily drove away from Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott to claim the win.
“I was worried every lap, waiting for a caution,” said an incredulous Truex afterward. “Especially at the end. You’re counting them down… the last 30, the last 20, the last 10, and then you get inside of five and you’re like, `Oh my God, there’s no way there’s not going to be a caution.’ And sure enough, there was. Fortunately, we were able to hold them off.
"This is very, very big to be able to do what we did," he added. "This was probably the best car I've ever had in my entire career. I can never recall saving fuel and pulling away from everybody before, so it was pretty amazing.”
The win was Truex’s third of the season, tying him with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the series lead. More important, it cemented Furniture Row Racing’s status as a team that can dominate – and win – at any time, on any size track. And with the 2017 playoffs now just eight weeks away, the Mayetta, NJ native has everything he needs to erase the memory of last season’s bitter Talladega elimination.
Truex collected his 13th stage win of the season Saturday night – nine more than any other driver. His 28 playoff points are a dozen more than second-best Johnson, and will give him a healthy head-start on the field when the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway on September 17. For an organization as consistently fast as Furniture Row, that head start should be enough to push Truex all the way to the Championship Four at Homestead Miami Speedway.
"Martin was super-fast,” said runner-up Larson Saturday. “He has been really, really fast all year long. I think we've been second best to him, but he's in a whole other league right now."
Larson’s “whole other league” assessment is shared by many in the NASCAR garage who have spent the last six months chasing the black No. 78 Toyota, without success.
In order to be successful in NASCAR’s new playoff format, a team must be consistent enough to avoid disasters; logging Top-10 finishes each week in order to advance. Barring that, a team must have the ability to win on demand; erasing a poor finish by driving to Victory Lane and claiming an automatic advancement to the next round.
Truex has both; consistency and the ability to win. He has led 257 more laps than any other driver this season, and tops the sport in checkered flags, as well. That combination will be difficult to beat, especially since the competition will be racing from behind in every round of the playoffs.
"I think he's peaking right now," said team owner Barney Visser following Saturday’s dominant win. “For the last year, I've thought he was as good as anyone in the garage. Now I think he's better than anyone in the garage. You saw what he did on that last restart, putting it down in Turn 1. He's just that good."
Visser stood by his driver during a traumatic 2014 season when Truex's longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer, offering him an opportunity to step away from the sport and focus on Pollex; secure that his ride would be waiting on the other side. Truex ran every race that season, forging a bond with his owner and team that made them one of the best in the sport.
Ironically, Truex revealed Saturday that Pollex has had a recurrence of cancer -- as 80-percent of ovarian cancer survivors do – and underwent surgery last weekend in Charlotte, NC.
“We found out a while ago about it," he explained. "She went in this weekend to have some surgery done. Everything went perfectly good. It went as planned. I'm going to bring her home tomorrow. I'm excited to get home and see her, and everything is going great."
Pollex posted a video of herself leaving the hospital Sunday, smiling and focusing – as always – on the positive. Truex is doing the same, openly speaking of a 2017 championship that would define his career.
“We're going to try our best, and I feel like we have a good shot at it. We've consistently been a front-runner for the last couple years, and hopefully that continues.”
Make no mistake about it. With nine races remaining until the playoffs begin, Martin Truex, Jr. is the man to beat for the 2017 championship.