HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR’s newest champion wouldn’t take his helmet off.
If he did, then everyone would see Martin Truex Jr. cry.
Truex capped the most successful season of his journeyman career as NASCAR’s champion Sunday, then struggled to start the celebration. He was mobbed on the frontstretch by his Furniture Row Racing team, and after his girlfriend pushed through the crowd to get to him, he finally pulled the helmet and black visor off to show his face.
Truex was sobbing.
“I was a mess. I couldn’t even talk,” Truex said. “I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me, but the guys, the people who mattered did, my fans, my family.
“Then when I got with this team ... they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”
Truex won his first Cup title by winning the finale, beating Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski for the championship. The other three were former champions. Truex was the favorite .
He thrived in that role, didn’t flinch when fellow Toyota driver Busch tried to use a different pit strategy to steal the race and then held off a hard-charging Busch over the final 12 laps to capture the title.
It was the eighth win of the season for Truex and first championship for Denver-based Furniture Row Racing. It was the second title in three years for manufacturer Toyota.
“Just a dream season. I was going to be gutted if we didn’t win,” Truex said. “We gave it our all, and it was enough tonight.”
Busch finished second for Joe Gibbs Racing as Toyota, the most dominant manufacturer this season, went 1-2 in the finale.
Kyle Larson, who was eliminated from the playoffs last month, finished third in a Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. Harvick, seeking his second title, was fourth in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Keselowski wound up seventh and was stopped short in trying to give Team Penske a season sweep of the two top American racing series. Penske won the IndyCar title in September.
Truex’s victory also denied Ford its third win of the weekend. Ford drivers won the Truck Series race and the Xfinity Series race. The manufacturer has not won a Cup title since 2004.
But it may not have even had a chance Sunday because that’s how strong Truex has been all year . Through his tears, he tried to express what this season — a year in which longtime partner Sherry Pollex suffered a recurrence of ovarian cancer — has meant.
“A lot of it was for (Pollex). A lot of it was for me. A lot of it was for this team,” Truex said. “I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid. Just never give up on your dreams no matter what happens and what kind of crap you go through.”
Missing from the celebration party was Furniture Row team owner Barney Visser. He suffered a heart attack two weeks ago and is sidelined in Colorado. After pouring millions into his race team, Visser watched it win its first championship on television.
Truex led nearly every statistical category this year, including wins, laps led and stage victories. Heading into Homestead, six of Truex’s wins came on 1 1/2-mile tracks, the same layout as Homestead. Now seven of his career-best eight wins are on those sized tracks.
“I mean, yeah, they’ve had the fastest car all year, so it was good to see him win,” said Harvick.
Keselowski reiterated that he believed the redesigned Toyota Camry has had an advantage over the competition since it debuted this season, and Chevrolet will catch up with its new Camaro next year. Ford has no plans for a redesign.
“I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that (Camry) got put on the racetrack and approved,” Keselowski said. “It kind of felt like Formula 1 where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”
It was the final race as full-time drivers for Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular in NASCAR , as well as Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt retired after his 25th-place finish.
Patrick blew a tire and wrecked , finishing 37th. The only woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500, Patrick said in a tearful news conference this weekend that she would race only in those two events next season and then retire.
Kenseth, who finished 15th, has no ride lined up for next year and said he will take time away from NASCAR.
Earnhardt’s final ride slightly overshadowed the championship race, but he tried to put the focus back on good friend Truex afterward. He drove up alongside Truex, hit his car in celebration and talked after the race about his happiness for Truex. Truex won two Xfinity Series championships driving for Earnhardt early in his career.
With a cooler of beer propped on the trunk of his race car, Earnhardt chugged several then partied with his crew and fans as Truex collected the Cup trophy.
“I was glad to have a hand in getting his career started, I am so proud of him,” Earnhardt said. “This sport needs drivers like Martin Truex Jr., and everything that he went through as a driver, and everything he went through in his personal life, and everything Sherry has gone through, it’s just great. And they (Furniture Row) are the outsiders up there in Colorado, came down here and beat all of us from North Carolina.”
Even with that early success when driving for Earnhardt’s second-tier team, Truex’s career never took off. He had a ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc., which closed and was folded into the Ganassi lineup. He finally found some success after signing with Michael Waltrip Racing, but he got snared in an MWR cheating scandal in 2013 that ultimately cost Truex his job and led to the eventual shutdown of the organization.
He acknowledged earlier this week that he worried he’d never race again at NASCAR’s top level, at least until Visser called.
Pollex reminded Truex of how far they’ve come when she embraced him.
“I told him ’That’s why you never give up,’” she said. “That’s been our motto all along, ever since I started my cancer battle. We were never going to give up, and we didn’t. Everybody is battling something, everybody is fighting something in their life, not just cancer, but any kind of struggle that they’re going through in their life.
“We always say if you can fight a struggle with a positive attitude and just have a smile on your face and find the good and the silver lining in everything, in the end you’ll come out and karma will pay you back and good things will happen to you.”