Now Martin Truex, Jr is Dancing With The Stars

Martin Truex, Jr seems to have had an epiphany in his quest to make it to the top.

Martin Truex, Jr seems to have had an epiphany in his quest to make it to the top.

About a decade ago I sat down in Ybor City, Tampa’s night time playground, with my co-host of RaceDay on Fox, Rob D’Amico and Martin Truex, Jr. Obviously he was the new Nationwide Series star on the block.

I didn’t know him at all but we didn’t take the lunch as an opportunity to interview or talk shop with him. It turned out to be just a friendly lunch. I discovered that he was just a normal young guy, his head incessantly turning as if at a tennis match, watching all the beautiful ladies that adorn this part of Florida. Who could blame him.

I was impressed with his approachability and his meshing into our conversation with ease, he was comfortable in his own skin. Not everyone in this business is.

Furniture Row Racing has not been at the top of the charts, except for a few occasions. They are known for having a robust super speedway program, but not for short and 1.5 mile tracks.

When Kurt Busch found himself on the outside, again, it was Furniture Row that picked him up and he returned the favor by putting a single car team in the chase.

It’s a team that seems to thrive on hope.

Truex won two Nationwide Championships. There was no doubt he could drive, but making the transition from a Nationwide/Xfinity/Busch car is not always a natural progression. It depends on the driver.

Truex didn't have a chance to tap dance his way off of Waltrip's Island. Truex didn't leave empty handed.

Truex didn’t have a chance to tap dance his way off of Waltrip’s Island. Truex didn’t leave empty handed.

Truex showed he was a hard racer, but he had his problems closing the deal and racing is all about closing the deal. He came out of the box hot, but like a half-submerged meteorite, began to cool slowly over the years. His stint at Michael Waltrip Racing didn’t produce the results that they had hoped. He was considered a B+ driver. Almost, but not quite a star.

He was always in the hunt, putting the car on pole, leading critical laps, but either he or the car let him down when it came crunch time. Obviously, like in all sports, a change might do him good and that change came without his approval.

Waltrip lost NAPA as a sponsor and out the door went Truex. Furniture Row stepped up, as it often does with drivers who have talent but have fallen from grace somehow. The big advantage, though Truex may not have seen at the time, was that he took all of his Waltrip racing crew with him.

That could become a game changer.

Without the advantage of being a Shaman or Edgar Cayce, 2015 may very well be a breakout year for Truex. It’s almost like that recording artist that gets a hit, whose been at it for 10 years, but everyone thinks he or she is an overnight sensation.

He’s been a challenger at every race so far and seems to have gotten the bit in his teeth. He appears to have his confidence back and that’s no small thing in auto racing.

Drivers can, through circumstances of their own or another’s making, find out that they can dig down deep and discover something that was hidden. It looks as if Truex has done that, but it is early.

Ricky Craven, recently said in the popular ESPN Turn 4 debate column when asked ‘who was the most pleasant surprise so far’, Craven responded: “Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team have been an inspiring story to open the new season. This group represents a lot of what’s really good about NASCAR in 2015.”

I agree with Craven. Truex has been the biggest surprise of the year so far. He’s the outlier. Even under the new rules everyone expected the usual suspects to emerge, but Furniture and Truex? No one saw it coming.

My bet is that if they can keep the momentum up and the relationships with the powers that be, a lot of “A” list drivers will see him coming.

He smells a win and so do I.


Darlington Victory Means, Yes, Smith Belongs

CONCORD, N.C. – Not so long ago, anyone who spoke about the NASCAR Sprint Cup All Star Race might well have said thus: Regan Smith doesn’t belong.

For that matter, he didn’t belong in victory lane after the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, either.

See, Smith drives for Furniture Row Racing, a one-car organization based in Denver – Colorado, not North Carolina. It has a limited number of personnel and relies on at least three major Sprint Cup teams for its pit crew, engines and chassis.

Given all of that, it seemed unlikely Smith and Furniture Row stood any chance of holding their own against the mega-teams – not to mention winning a race.

But you knew all of that.

You also know that Smith pulled off a major upset at Darlington, where he held off Carl Edwards to score an improbable victory at the crusty old track and, in so doing, have his name placed alongside such NASCAR legends as Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, among others.

And you also know that the win earned him a spot in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, scheduled for tonight at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The fact is, yes, by golly, Smith does belong in a race reserved for only a selected few, all of them winners. After all, he is one of them.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith during a press conference, “you are extremely motivated before you get that first win. Then when you get that first win, you know how to do it.

“I’m even more motivated now than I was before, if that sounds right. You get that first one and you want another one. As fast as you can get it and as soon as you can get it.”

The 27-year-old Smith, who, in one man’s opinion looks more like 17, admitted that he and his team knew the victory at Darlington made them eligible for the all star event. But then, for a week at least, their mindset changed.

“Yes, we thought about it as soon as the race at Darlington was over,” Smith said in the CMS garage area. “It was a pretty big deal.

“But it sure didn’t play on our minds at Dover the next week. That was another race for which we had to be ready.

“This week, however, it’s played on our minds a lot more than last week simply because this is all-star week. We’ve done things differently because when you are in the all-star race, there are different requirements and different things you have to do.”

One thing that is decidedly different about the all-star race is the qualifying procedure, which includes a couple of hot laps and a four-tire pit stop.

All of which is completely new to Smith and his team.

“I have never done the qualifying procedure here with the pit stop and everything,” said Smith prior to Saturday night’s time trials. “I’ve never seen a tape or DVD of it being done.

“But anything we do or learn in qualifying, I’m not sure how relevant it is going to be the night of the race. The track is really warm night now and it’s going to be dark when we race.”

Smith’s lack of knowledge might well have been a factor in qualifying, in which he was, overall, 17th fastest of 18 cars to take to the track.

As you might expect, Smith and the Furniture Row team felt surges of confidence and motivation after their Darlington victory. The emotions spilled over to Dover and remain in place at Charlotte.

“There was just more of an air of confidence about the guys,” Smith said. “A lot of guys on our team have ever won before at anything.

“For most of us it was a first experience and that same confidence that I gained as a driver, I can see that confidence within them as a team, which is really cool to see happen.”

Like Trevor Bayne, who won his first career Sprint Cup victory in the Daytona 500 – yet will not compete in the all star race due to a lingering illness – Smith has been thrust wholesale into the consciousness of his peers and the racing public.

Over the past week he has made whirlwind public and media appearances, just as Bayne did.

“I have been busy, real busy,” Smith said. “But it’s been a good busy. You really don’t mind it when it’s for all the right reasons.

“There were, for example, a lot of media obligations. I got the opportunity to go on Sportscenter in Connecticut and that was really cool. I always wanted to do that.

“It’s just been a lot of neat, little stuff that I probably would not have ever done without the win at Darlington. Certainly the win has had a lot to do with what has happened.”

I was privileged to be on a radio show with Smith just two nights after his Darlington victory. I suggested to him that, in the days ahead, he observe, as much as possible, how he is perceived by his fellow competitors.

After all, he not only won a race, he won it at Darlington.

“As for the competitors, the coolest part for me is that you never know where you stand in the garage area or with them.” Smith said. “Me, I’ve been around only a little while and had only limited success.

“But still, it was all the same. As many guys that have come up to me and said congratulations, including the ones in victory lane in Darlington and thereafter, well, it really means a lot.

“I can’t thank everyone enough for the support they are showing my team and me. It’s exciting.

“It’s been so good we want to go out and do it all over again.”

Maybe that will happen in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Why not? It wasn’t supposed to happen in Darlington.

But it doesn’t matter. Smith and his team can derive great satisfaction from this: They belong and everyone knows they do.


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