HOMESTEAD, Florida — The members of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series “Championship 4” were asked to sum up the season in one word.
Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski both responded, “Long.”
Kyle Busch answered, “Trying.”
Martin Truex Jr. broke into a wide smile and said, “Amazing.”
Truex, who grew up in Stafford Township, enters Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 as the favorite to emerge as the series champion after dominating the field for much of the season.
“We’ve all been chasing the 78 (Truex’s car) all year,” Busch said. “You have to look at him as the biggest threat.”
The 37-year-old has already won seven races, the most by a driver in a season since Carl Edwards won nine in 2008. Truex, who drives the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, also leads the series in top five finishes (18), top 10s (25), laps led (2,175), stage wins (19), starting position (6.9) and average finish (9.7).
Most of his success came on 1.5-mile tracks. He set NASCAR records with six victories on those ovals, including four straight at Kentucky Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
Homestead-Miami Speedway is also a 1.5-mile track.
And Truex has continued his success in practice this weekend. He turned in the fastest practice lap Saturday at 31.543 seconds while averaging 171.195 miles per hour. On Friday, he qualified second and will start next to pole winner Denny Hamlin.
“It’s so much easier to win races when you have that speed,” Truex said. “What my (crew) does for me is incredible. I think we definitely have enough speed to do what we need to do.”
As the favorite, Truex is in a much different position, both in and out of the car, than his last race for the championship.
In 2015, he joined Busch, Harvick and Jeff Gordon in the finals. He was regarded as an underdog and was never really a factor. Busch won the championship while Truex was fourth among the contenders.
“That was a huge learning experience for us,” Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, said earlier this week on a conference call. “At that point we were just thrilled to have made (the Championship 4), and I think we really didn’t know what to do. It was like a dog chasing the car. We finally caught the car and didn’t know what to do with it.”
Truex was also an afterthought with regard to racing fans. Aside from friends and family members, he received very few autograph requests. Most fans in 2015 were huddled around Gordon, who retired after the race.
The scene has been markedly different this week.
When Truex bounded out of the Furniture Row Racing office on pit row Saturday, dozens of fans wearing “Hot Pass” badges that granted them access to the garages engulfed him in search of autographs and pictures.
Almost all of them were sporting a T-shirt or hat that bore his name.
Not bad for a driver who was close to giving up the sport just a few years ago.
In 2013, Truex was unwittingly caught up in a controversy that resulted in him getting eliminated from championship contention. A few weeks later, Michael Waltrip Racing dumped him.
“I remember sitting on my porch (in Charlotte, North Carolina) and realizing that there was a chance I may never race in the Cup series again,” Truex said. “I didn’t have a sponsor or team, and I didn’t know of any opportunities. Fortunately, Furniture Row called.”
Truex and the team struggled in 2014, then started to perform better in 2015. After winning just two races in his first 11 years on the circuit, he earned a victory in 2015 and won another four last year.
He will still consider this year amazing, regardless of what happens Sunday.
“If we don’t win it, the sky’s not going to fall,” Truex said. “If we don’t win it, the sun’s going to come up Monday morning. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll just have to see. I’ve already made it farther in racing than I ever thought possible.”