HOMESTEAD, Florida — Local NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr. provided the perfect ending to his incredible season on Sunday.
Truex took over the lead of the Ford EcoBoost 400 with 35 laps remaining and held off Kyle Busch to win the race and capture the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway before a sellout crowd of 46,000.
After taking the checkered flag, Truex exchanged high fives with fans along the wall on his way to pit row. After performing his victory burnout in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, he exchanged a tearful embrace with his father, Martin Truex Sr., and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, then was mobbed by his pit crew.
A few minutes later, he took the stage in victory lane to loud cheers. Truex, a 1998 Southern Regional High School graduate, and crew chief Cole Pearn hoisted the championship trophy while fireworks lit up the night sky behind the track.
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid,” Truex said. “We just didn’t give up. I told my guys we were going to dig deep and give it all we got. I didn’t have the best car, but I just found a way.”
Truex and Busch finished one-two in both the race and the Championship 4 competition, followed by Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.
Truex struggled for much of the race. There was a point about midway through he was running fourth among the four championship contenders.
Busch, who won the series championship in 2015, gambled by staying on the track while the others pit and built a 26-second lead with 55 laps remaining in the 267-lap race. But a caution enabled the field to grab a fresh set of tires.
Truex regained the lead with 47 laps remaining and withstood Busch’s final charge to register the victory.
“I feel bad that we came up short, given that we had the best car today,” Busch said. “I tried to stay as close to (Truex) at the end in case he made a mistake, but he didn’t. It wasn’t quite what we wanted at the end, but that’s racing.”
Truex entered the race as the favorite, based on his amazing string of performances during the regular season and playoffs.
Besides winning seven races, he also led in laps led (2,175), top five finishes (18), top 10s (25), stage wins (19), starting position (6.9) and average finish (9.7).
“He’s had the fastest car all year,” Harvick said, “so it’s good to see him win.”
The victory marked the culmination of a difficult season off the track for Truex and Furniture Row Racing.
Pollex has been waging a courageous fight against ovarian cancer since 2014. One of Pern’s best friends uexpectedly died during the season, as did his dog. Crew member Jim Watson suffered a fatal heart attack during a go-kart outing with the team in Kansas last month.
Two weeks ago, Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. He was unable to attend Sunday’s race.
“With everything he’s been through as a driver and in his personal life, it’s just great to see him win this title,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ended his racing career on Sunday. “He’s been a good friend for a long, long time.”
Visser’s support for Truex dates back to 2014, when Truex signed with Denver-based Furniture Row Racing.
A year earlier, he had been dropped by Michael Waltrip Racing and no other major team offered him a ride.
“I was a mess (after the race),” Truex said through tears. “I was a wreck, thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times when I thought my career was over with. I didn’t think anyone believed in me, but the people who mattered — my fans, my family and this team — did.
“They’re unbelievable. They resurrected my career and made me a champion.”
Truex raced in front of a huge, enthusiastic fan base.
Hundreds of specators from all parts of the country stopped by his pit stop section to write inspirational messages on the wall.
One note came from someone named Ken W. from South Jersey. He wrote: “Good Luck You old CLAMDIGGER!” Below that was one that read: “Best of Luck Martin From Tuckerton Fans.” Someone also wrote: “Go Martin Luv LBI Crew!!!”
Other fans from as far away as Colorado — Furniture Row Racing is based in Denver — wished him good luck as well as someone from Totten, Canada.
Truex’s entire team — the pit crew, mechanics, spotters and garage members — joined him on the stage to pose for pictures around the trophy.
But there was another photo to be taken.
The team started a tradition at the beginning of the season in which they would celebrate a victory with Truex by heading over to his motorcoach on the infield and pose for a group selfie.
They did it again Sunday night.