NASCAR community celebrates champion Martin Truex Jr.; honors retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr.

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 30: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Martin Truex Jr. (L) and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. share a moment on stage during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series awards at Wynn Las Vegas on November 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – The centerpiece of Thursday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards Ceremony was Martin Truex Jr., a first-time champion who earned the title in stock car racing’s foremost division with a Furniture Row Racing team that got its unlikely start as a single-car operation in Denver, Colorado.

But the sport also bid farewell—as a full-time driver—to Dale Earnhardt Jr., not only by conferring a 15th straight NMPA Most Popular Driver Award on the 26-time race winner, but also by recognizing his accomplishments with the prestigious Bill France Award of Excellence.

Earnhardt, in fact, introduced Truex, his close friend, as the 2017 champion, and there was no doubt Truex deserved the honor. Driving the no. 78 Toyota, Truex led the series in victories with eight and laps led with 2,253.

With the advent of stage racing for the 2017 season, Truex dominated the new format, accumulating a series-best 19 stages wins and enough playoff points to advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with one race left in the Round of 8.

Truex then capped the season with a dramatic victory at Homestead, holding off championship runner-up Kyle Busch by .681 seconds.

“I’d have to say the new stage racing worked out pretty well for us,” Truex quipped during his speech, after NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France handed him the championship ring.

Truex’s season, however, wasn’t without its difficult moments. His long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014, suffered a recurrence earlier this year. The “Never give up” motto of the No. 78 team also became a mantra in Truex’s personal life.

“No one has lived that out more than my life partner Sherry,” Truex said. “She is the true champion.”

Team owner Barney Visser suffered a heart attack late in the season and, after surgery, was unable to attend the festivities at the Wynn Las Vegas. Visser’s son Tim accepted the champion owner’s award in his stead and assured those at the ceremony that his father was doing well.

Furniture Row Racing fabricator Jim Watson passed away unexpectedly during the Kansas Speedway weekend in the Playoff, and Truex offered a toast to Watson from the podium.

“This has been an emotional journey,” Truex said. “I can’t begin to tell you about all the highs and lows.”

One of the absolute lows occurred during 2014, Truex’s first season with the team. Truex posted only one top-five finish that year and ended the season 24th in the series standings.

“In 2014 we struggled, and you didn’t give up on me—thank you,” Truex said team president Joe Garone.

It wasn’t until Truex joined forces with crew chief Cole Pearn late in that first year that the turnaround at Furniture Row started. In 2015 they made it to the Championship 4 and finished fourth. A year later, they were champions.

“You’re the best crew chief and team coach I’ve ever known, and, buddy, thank you for making me a champion,” Truex said to Pearn.

The honors to Truex and the Furniture Row organization followed a special tribute to Earnhardt introduced by the NASCAR chairman.

“The Bill France Award of Excellence is not given out every year,” France said. “It’s for the ultimate achievement and contribution to the sport they love—NASCAR. Sometimes it’s on the track. Sometimes it’s off the track. And every once in a while, it’s both.

“Tonight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the recipient of the Bill France Award of Excellence.”

It was entirely predictable that Earnhardt would receive his 15th Most Popular Driver Award at the end of his final season in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The Bill France Award was a surprise.

“It’s a real honor,” Earnhardt said after a long round of applause. “I always tell people all the time that all I wanted to do in racing was to be able pay my bills and be able to race for a long time. I’ve just enjoyed being a part of the sport.

“I didn’t know whether I’d win races or have the opportunity to win championships. I just wanted to be in it. I feel lucky and fortunate to have been able to do some good things, inside the car and outside the car. I always tried to take a lot of pride in taking the sport to new places and introducing it to new people.

“I’ve got to thank the fans, because without them, none of the opportunities that I ever had in racing would have happened.”

Earnhardt then had some sage advice for Truex.

“I remember when I won my first race, my dad (the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.) said, ‘Celebrate this,’ and I know what he meant after all these years, ‘cause you never get to celebrate that first win again,” Earnhardt said.

“You never get to celebrate that first championship again, so we’re going to celebrate it good tonight, Martin.”

In his runner-up speech, Kyle Busch also made a tongue-in-cheek reference to Earnhardt. He thanks NASCAR’s most popular driver for “converting all of Junior Nation into Rowdy fans.” That was one of the biggest laugh lines of the night.

Not lost among the festivities was the contribution 2003 champion Matt Kenseth has made to the sport. With no concrete plans for next year after completing his final season in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kenseth has announced a hiatus from the sport, one he acknowledges could mark the end of his career as a Monster Energy Series driver.

“Matt, I wish you the best in the future,” Truex said from the podium. “You’re an awesome person and a great driver.”

Truex and Busch, along with Playoff drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, led Toyota to its second straight manufacturers championship.

In a poignant tribute, Bob Carter, executive vice president, sales for Toyota Motor North America, dedicated the championship to J.D. Gibbs. The son of team owner Joe Gibbs has been stricken with a serious neurological disorder.

“J.D. is a friend to everyone in this room,” Carter said. “He’s a father. He’s a great person to be with. J.D., I know you’re home watching. You’re recovering. You’re a fighter. This celebration, this manufacturer’s award is on behalf of you.”

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