DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Martin Truex Sr. had a familiar deckhand this week when he unhitched his boat for a fishing trip off South Florida. Truex first brought his son into the family business aboard a clamming boat as a teenager. The son would rise before dawn, sometimes sprung to life from the chilly bite at sea or the ruckus of choppy waves.
Martin Truex Jr. knew early he wouldn’t anchor to a life at sea.
“I just remember trying to stay awake in between tows. This is so boring,” he said, laughing. “Then you got to go outside and freeze your you-know-what off for 30 minutes at a time. I remember it being tough and thinking that I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.”
On this recent trip, the Truex boys skipped the clams and cast a wider net. They caught three sailfish on their first day out and chatted about business, life, and, most of all, the father and son just focused on having a good time.
“We never even talked about racing,” Truex Sr. said.
Oh yeah, his boy’s weekend job. The kid who never developed a taste for clamming instead followed one of his dad’s other passions: Racing.
Once a journeyman driver, Truex enters the 2018 NASCAR season as the class — and envy — of the field. He was a guest on the “Today” show, rooted on his beloved Philadelphia Eagles at the Super Bowl and had the honor of inducting a racing Hall of Famer last month.
He did it all as NASCAR champ.
“It’s been a crazy, busy offseason,” Truex said.
The 37-year-old Truex reaped the rewards of a start-to-finish dominant season that saw him reel off eight victories, 26 top-10 finishes and a victory at Homestead that clinched the crown with dad watching from atop the pit box.
Did someone say encore?
“I feel like the last three seasons, we improved in every category every year,” Truex said. “Obviously after last year, it’s going to be tough to continue the trend. I think we’re gearing up to do that. I felt like last year we could have won more races.”
Yes, Truex enters Sunday’s Daytona 500 feeling like his best is still ahead in the No. 78 Toyota.
Truex has undergone a career rebirth that is rare in NASCAR history.
Truex won two races over 333 career starts from his debut with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2004 through a tumultuous tenure at Michael Waltrip Racing and a head-scratching first season at Furniture Row Racing where he led one lap — one! — all year. He never finished better than 11th in the standings until 2015, and yet has now finished in NASCAR’s version of the Final Four in two of the last three seasons.
“Every place that he’s been prior to where he is now, there was some kind of disaster going on,” Truex Sr. said. “He was never in a spot that was really stable until now. He needed the opportunity and the right people around you. It’s all about the people, like any business.”
Truex found professional peace far removed from NASCAR’s hub in Charlotte, North Carolina. Furniture Row Racing opened in 2005 in Denver on a shoestring budget and a part-time schedule that made the team a bit player among the sport’s powerhouses. Truex and FRR had a shotgun marriage of sorts out of the wreckage of the MWR cheating scandal that crippled the operation and forced Truex out of a job. FRR and team owner Barney Visser scrambled to find a replacement for Kurt Busch, and what started as a bit of a blind date has morphed into long-term bliss.
Truex had a win in 2015 and reached the championship round. He won four times in 2016, setting the stage for his career year. He led a whopping 2,253 laps and posted an average finish of 6.8 in 2017 — better numbers than Jimmie Johnson posted in any of his seven championship seasons.
Dad figured out long ago Truex Jr. was on a path toward greatness.
“Racing was always much more of a passion than as a fisherman,” Truex Sr. said.
Truex Sr., who raised his family in Mayetta, New Jersey, raced on free weekends when he wasn’t running Sea Watch International, the world’s largest harvester and processor of clam products. He raced 15 times from 1989-1998 in NASCAR’s second-tier series and never finished in the top 10. While dad raced, mom Linda brought Martin to go-kart tracks and steeled her nerves while the blossoming driver caught up some gnarly wrecks.
In 2000, the inevitable happened: the Truex boys went head-to-head in a low-level NASCAR race. The father qualified fourth and his son fifth and … well, let the champ pick it up from here:
“I started running him down. I’m like, I’m catching him. My eyes are this big, catching my dad, catching my dad. Running him down, catching him, getting to two car lengths, that’s when I had my issue. We didn’t get to race. I just wanted to race him, like, get side by side or something and see.”
Truex Jr. was forced to retire his car because of mechanical issues — and dad soon followed suit, retiring from the sport.
“He had a brand new car and engine; I had an old one. I was catching him. He’s like, ‘I’m out. I’m done,'” Truex Jr. said, smiling.
Truex Sr. had a more pragmatic explanation.
“He was very good at it,” said Truex Sr., “and we couldn’t afford to run two cars.”
Truex is in the same spot this year now that FRR has ended its one-season dalliance as a two-car operation and now focuses on the easygoing East Coast native — proof that even small, committed teams can succeed with just the right guy in the big-bucks world of NASCAR. FRR’s decision to promote Cole Pearn to crew chief in 2015, followed a year later with a switch to Toyota and a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing have made all the difference.
Truex expects to have all his loved ones — including longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex — at the track this weekend when he tries to win his first Daytona 500 . The green flag is about to drop on Truex’s bid to become NASCAR’s second active driver with multiple Cup championships.
“We know exactly what we were doing. We know exactly how we did it,” Truex said. “We just have to try to repeat that.”
By DAN GELSTON, AP Sports Writer
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