Truex Jr. caps off magical season with first career Cup championship

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Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – He’s been the fastest driver all season, Furniture Row Racing has been the fastest team all season, and when the checkered flag flew on the Ford EcoBoost 400 from Homestead-Miami Speedway and the 2017 season, it was Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 team hoisting the inaugural Monster Cup and winning their first-ever championship.

That’s right—for the fourth year in a row, the winner of the championship also won the season-finale race in Miami. The win was Truex Jr.’s first ever at Homestead-Miami, his eighth of the season and seventh on an intermediate track this season. The championship is the first of Truex Jr. and FRR’s career, both spanning more than a decade.


MTJ, A CHAMPION

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The man who has led every statistical category throughout the season, and deserved the championship crown based on the stat sheet, closed the deal and brought home the hardware for the No. 78 team. Given all the things he has gone through in his career, personally and professionally, to get to this point, the emotions were flowing out of the Mayetta, N.J. native.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Truex Jr. said with tears in his eyes upon climbing out of his No. 78 Toyota, attempting to reflect on the championship. “To think about all the rough days and bad days, the days that we couldn’t run 20th, to be here—I never thought this day would come, and to be here is so unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say. We just never gave up all day long. We didn’t have the best car. I don’t know how we won that thing. Never give up. Dig deep.”

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In order to win the title and race, Truex Jr. had to hold off Kyle Busch, who had the quickest car on the evening. Busch restarted fourth on the final restart but made his way into second and set his sights on Truex Jr. for the lead and the championship. But Truex Jr. changed his line in all four corners, ran a little higher and was able to slow Busch’s momentum enough to hold him off and cross the finish line by just over half a second to win it all.

“I just found a way,” Truex Jr. said of the late battle. “I found a lane that I could use, and I found a lane that was blocking enough of their air that they couldn’t use it and just made it happen. I can’t believe it. I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid and just never give up. Just never give up on your dreams, no matter what happens and what kind of crap you go through.”


THE PEOPLE’S CHAMP

One of the only teams in NASCAR history to have their headquarters outside the Charlotte bubble (in Denver). A team that struggled to perform and had only one win (which some called a fluke) to their credit in almost 10 years of existence. Nearly no sponsorship for almost a decade.

Add a driver who thought his career was over after “Spingate” when his Michael Waltrip Racing days were over, whose longtime girlfriend has battled ovarian cancer in the public eye and relished the fight. Add a crew chief who lost his best friend and a crew member in a three-month span. Add an owner who couldn’t even attend the championship race due to a heart attack that forced him to remain home … and this team won the championship?

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

They’re the little engine that could. They’re the underdogs that worked hard, put their heads down and got what they deserved. They’re the team, the driver, the story that everyone wants and loves. That’s why Martin Truex Jr. might be the real people’s champion.

Sure, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon are “ordinary guys” just like us. But the fact of the matter is that they don’t seem like it. MTJ isn’t a normal, ordinary guy like the rest of us. Even if he says he is. He isn’t. But he’s different, because everyone thinks he is.

He’s relatable. He’s gone through peaks and valleys in his professional career and personal life. All of which have been made public. He’s widely regarded as one of the “good guys” in the garage and has done it all the right way on his way to the top of the mountain. The cheers in the stands showed how much of the fan base was rooting for the No. 78. For good reason.


COMING UP SHORT

Although Martin Truex Jr. walked away with the trophy, there were three drivers that walked away from Miami empty handed: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

It was Busch and the No. 18 team that had the quickest hot rod for the majority of the evening. But when eventual champion Truex Jr. took away their line on the final 34-lap green flag run, it was all she wrote. Their shot at another championship in 2017 went out the window.

Crew chief Adam Stevens opted to put them on a different strategy which would’ve seen them pit once in the final stage while everyone else would have to pit twice. This strategy was contingent on one thing: no cautions coming out for the remainder of the race. Alas, cautions were thrown, and Stevens’ strategy was foiled.

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

“I thought we were better,” Busch said. “Doesn’t matter, though. (The No. 78 team was) out front when it mattered most. Just unfortunate that that caution came out and kind of ruined our race strategy and we weren’t able to get back to where we needed to be, and then I had to fight too hard with some of those other guys trying to get back up through there. That’s racing.”

Harvick also had a quick Ford for the first stage of the race, but as the sun went down, the track cooled off and a piece of debris wound up creating a small hole in the right front nose of the No. 4. He was about the third-best championship contender throughout the second half.

“We just got really loose and then got a hole in the nose and it started to get tight in (into the corner),” Harvick said after his fourth-place finish in the race. “We got that fixed. We were pretty good on the next-to-last run, and we were just really loose on the last run. It was great to have a chance. We were in the mix all day. Didn’t quite have what we needed at the end.”

Keselowski and his No. 2 team were the fourth-fastest car throughout the entirety of the weekend, and were the big underdog going in. Thanks to an early strategy call from Paul Wolfe atop the pit box, Keselowski was up front for most of the first stage, but lack of speed hurt him.

“Of course the result you want is to win the race, win the championship, but the effort was phenomenal,” Keselowski said following his first ever championship four appearance at Homestead-Miami. “And I was really proud of our group for everything they put into that, trying to be the best with this package. We weren’t quite best in class, but we ran up front.”


THE FIELD

Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson (won both stages one and two), Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott rounded out the top five, with Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman capping off the top 10. Some other notable finishers included Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 25th, Jimmie Johnson in 27th, Ryan Blaney in 29th and Danica Patrick in 37th (accident).


GOODBYES

Sunday marked the last planned Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races for two future Hall of Famers and two of the biggest names in the sport: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Danica Patrick also announced this would be her final race as a full-time competitor, and she will retire from NASCAR competition after next year’s Daytona 500 concludes on February.

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Dale Jr. brought the No. 88 Chevrolet back in one piece (despite a wall scrape) and threw down some cold beers—or as Junior says, colbeers—and turned the No. 88 into a makeshift bar on pit road after the race. It was a mad scene, but exactly what Junior wanted in his final ride.

Kenseth had more of a subdued celebration for his last race, and Patrick ended hers in the medical center for her 11th DNF (did not finish) of the season. The sport is losing three of the biggest names and two greats. Their careers should be celebrated, and I’m glad they were.


WHAT’S NEXT

Nothing! The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is over, and so are the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series seasons. The NXS and NCWTS banquets will take place this weekend from Charlotte, NC and the MENCS Awards banquet will take place next weekend from Las Vegas putting a bow on the season that was, one that will be remembered for years.

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