By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. spent almost a decade trying to climb his way into NASCAR’s top tier. He didn’t win races, never led many laps, wasn’t considered an elite driver capable of winning championships.
Then suddenly, it clicked.
Truex has transformed over the last two seasons from a journeyman driver into a legitimate title contender. Some might even say he’s the favorite to win this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
He won two races in the first round of the playoffs and goes into the opening race of the second round Saturday night in search of another dominating performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Truex led all but eight of the 400 laps in the Coca-Cola 600 to score his first win of what’s turned into a dream season.
Asked Thursday about those lean years — he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. as it was on the verge of collapse, Chip Ganassi Racing when the team was struggling, Michael Waltrip Racing during an embarrassing cheating scandal that contributed to its closure — Truex noted the differences.
“It’s almost like, ‘OK, finally, we’re here,’” he said. “Now, how do we make sure we can keep it going? You understand how easy it is to be on the other side of it and how hard you worked to get here.”
For Truex, the MWR debacle has been the best thing to happen to his career.
When the team was accused of a sequence of shady events that put Truex into the 2013 Chase, the team was severely sanctioned and he was kicked out of the championship field. He was an unwitting victim of the scandal, but it prompted his sponsor to leave MWR and the ultimate closing of Truex’s team. Two years later, MWR was out of business,
Truex landed in 2014 at single-car team Furniture Row Motorsports, a job that could have been seen as a step back. MWR was a multi-car team with a Toyota partnership, Furniture Row was a middle of the pack Chevrolet team located in Denver, far from the hub of NASCAR talent in North Carolina.
The fit has been amazing, though, and Truex not only made the Chase last season, he advanced all the way to the championship race.
This year, Furniture Row switched to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing. Despite the distance from JGR, his role as a partner and not a true Gibbs teammate, and the transition itself, Truex has been among the most consistent drivers all season.
He has career-bests in victories — his four wins include the crown jewel Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 races — and laps led. His two wins in the opening round of the Chase set the pace and have made winning the title a realistic possibility.
“Your focus is just, ‘What can I do to continue this roll, continue this momentum?’” he said. “I think a lot of it obviously is being part of a great team. Everybody knows in this sport it is a team sport and I’m just honestly thankful I’m getting to show my talent, my capabilities behind the wheel and focus on continuing this roll that we’re on.
“I don’t take it for granted. I know that in two weeks it could be gone,” he said. “You just never know in this sport, so I’m just really living in the moment and enjoying myself.”
The success has paid dividends for the Barney Visser-owned team. He for years paid for the team out of his own pocket with his Furniture Row chain as the sponsor, but Truex has helped attract outside funding and collision and repair company Maaco on Thursday signed on as an associate sponsor.
Furniture Row will also expand next year to two cars and bring in Erik Jones, a JGR development driver.
It’s rewarding to see the rapid changes for Visser and team general manager Joe Garone.
“Barney and Joe have worked 11 years in this sport with Furniture Row only on the car and to be bringing in new partners is such a big deal for us and for Barney,” Truex said. “If we continue to do this, we can continue to be around for a long time, be competitive and do the things we want to do and hopefully we’re bringing a lot of value back to our partners.”