|08/29/19||DIBENNEDETTO NASCAR'S ROCKY BALBOA|
|06/26/19||FROM JOURNEYMAN DRIVER TO HALL OF FAMER|
|06/18/19||WINNERS NOT ADDING UP|
|05/25/19||THE 600 IS STILL A CROWN JEWEL|
|05/15/19||NEXT TWO WEEKS COULD BE TOO GOOD|
|04/10/19||WALTRIP A TWO-WAY HALL OF FAMER|
FROM JOURNEYMAN DRIVER TO HALL OF FAMER
Over the weekend, Martin Truex, Jr. proved to be the new king of the road at Sonoma Raceway, winning there for the third time and becoming the first back-to-back winner in northern California since Jeff Gordon in 1999-2000. It was also Truex's 23rd career Monster Energy Cup Series win, tying him with Joey Logano and Ricky Rudd for 34th on the all-time victory list.
This from a guy who won just twice in his first 346 Cup starts. This from someone who at one point in his career was looked like a good driver, who was fated to a journeyman career. This from a driver now destined for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Before moving to NASCAR's top circuit in 2006, Truex captured two straight titles on what is now the Xfinity Series, winning 12 races during those seasons, and he had ever reason to believe even though he'd be facing tougher competition he would eventually be successful when he went up against the best stock car drivers on the planet.
It didn't happen. His first Cup team Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) was no longer the powerhouse being built by the former champion before his untimely death in 2001. With his wife Teresa running the show, DEI was in a slow spiral downward towards mediocrity. Still, at Dover about midway through the 2007 season, Truex grabbed his first Cup win his 58th career start. He would not go back to victory lane with DEI, which morphed into Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2009.
A year later, Truex joined Michael Waltrip Racing's fledgling operation, going winless in 2011 and 2012. The following season the combination finally clicked for their first checkered flag as the New Jersey native came a winner for the first time at Sonoma. It really seemed at the time Truex and his #56 team, with solid backing from NAPA, was building towards something big with a runner-up at Texas preceding their California breakthrough.
Consistent success, however, continued to be an elusive target. It was if Truex was trying to date a fickle mistress, who kept changing her mind as untimely yellow flags and gut-wrenching misfortune repeatedly broke his heart. Then came the most, unkind cut of all. Near the end of 2013, one of Waltrip's other teams, with driver Brian Vickers, was caught manipulating how they finished in the final race of the regular season and who would make the Chase. NASCAR came down hard on MWR and NAPA decided their company couldn't afford to be tainted by the episode despite Truex's innocence.
Two wins over eight seasons, didn't exactly make Truex a must-have free agent and besides, when all this went down, all the frontline rides for 2014 had already been spoken for. That left only Furniture Row Racing and Barney Visser, who's shop was all the way out in Colorado and had won just once in 235 starts.
Having dealt with controversies of his own and being shown the door by Roger Penske, Kurt Busch had wound up at Furniture Row in 2013. The team was certainly more competitive with the former champion, but few people thought the organization could rise to prominence headquartered so far from Charlotte. So as Kurt exited, coming through the other side of the door was Truex with no one expecting them to set the world on fire.
And they didn't, at least not in the beginning. Who knew, though, these two runts of the litter would not stay in the doghouse too much longer. True, they went winless in 2014, but the next season Truex partnered up with new crew chief Cole Pearn and popped up with a win at Pocono. The duo wound up making the Final Four, making their first serious run at the title. Four more wins followed in 2016 and in 2017 Truex became the man to beat by grabbing eight wins and this time when he got to Homestead-Miami Speedway he drove away with the checkered flag and the Monster Energy Cup Series championship. Barney Visser was vindicated and so was Truex.
Last season, Truex had won four more times, but just before the Playoff began Visser dropped the bombshell he was shutting down when the current Cup campaign was over. Truex was once again a free agent, but this time Joe Gibbs would come calling so it didn't matter he failed to win one of the final 10 races and was the runner-up in the championship chase.
Finally, he found himself with the best team in the sport with all the resources he or any driver could ask for. You just knew he and Pearn weren't going to waste the opportunity. They haven't.
All of which brings us back to Sonoma this past Sunday as Truex snaked his way to his fourth win in 2019 in the opening 17 races. Any numbers the almost 39-year-old driver adds this season or until he finally hangs up his helmet are simply to pad the tally sheet until he's fitted with a dark blue blazer and stands besides icons like Petty, Yarborough, Gordon, and Stewart. Before he's done Truex might bank another title or two and his win total should be up around 40.
It's been a bumpy road, with a number of twist and turns, but Truex always stayed true to himself. The guys he drove for loved him and it was hard to find anyone in the garage that didn't like or respect the second-generation driver. He's always been real and a really good interview. I can remember hanging out with his team at Nazareth doing a spoof piece for TV about clams, the family business. He was just one of the guys, sitting around a campfire and enjoying every moment of what he's always considered a blessed life no matter how it turned out.
If you had asked me during the 2014 season if Martin Truex, Jr. would ever make the NASCAR Hall of Fame my first reaction would have been "doubtful, but maybe", thinking the two Xfinity Series championships might somewhere way down the line get him in when they ran out of heavy hitters. It was going to take a while, if ever. The statistics weren't there to guarantee it and there didn't seem any possible way that was going to change dramatically enough to make a real difference.
Fast forward five and a half seasons later with 21 wins in the last 147 races there should be no debate after you add it all up with that one Cup title jumping off the page.
That's what so cool about our country and our sport. If you keep digging and keep the faith opportunities for greatness will eventually present themselves. If you don't believe me just ask the guy with the glass of wine, grinning in victory lane last weekend.