Truex a ‘people’s champion’ like Parsons before him

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Martin Truex Jr. says Sunday's race at MIS is "going to be a blast."

Brooklyn – Martin Truex Jr. always begins race week at Michigan International Speedway up near Traverse City.

“He won’t tell me where,” said his media representative, David Ferroni.

You know how fishermen are. Hitting fish in a hot hole? Shush, mums the word!

“It’s somewhere up there,” Ferroni said. “They caught a lot of fish this week.”

Which is a nice relaxing thing to do before jumping on the big NASCAR track here with new set-ups for the cars that make them both faster and less stable, in an effort to encourage passing for more competitive racing.

The result is a little hair-raising, behind the wheel.

Truex qualified second for the Sprint Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 (1 p.m., Sunday, FS1).

“It was definitely an exciting run that third round,” Truex said of the qualifying runs Friday. “We freed the car up quite a bit and it was pretty sideways going into turn three. So it was a lot of fun out there.

“Sunday is going to be a blast.”

Truex’s team is Furniture Row Racing, a bit of an anomaly in Sprint Cup racing. Denver is the site of the corporate headquarters for the furniture company and its racing crew. It is the only NASCAR team west of the Mississippi River.

It is also the only single-car team ever to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which it has done twice, in 2013 with Kurt Busch driving and last season with Truex.

Truex scored 22 top-10 finishes last season, with eight top-fives. The 35-year-old, 12-year veteran from Mayetta, New Jersey, finished fourth in the Chase.

He likes his chances Sunday at MIS.

“Get the tape off and get the race setups in the race cars and get the sun on the track all day,” he said. “It’s going to get slick and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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Truex’s growing following among NASCAR fans is spurred in part by the David versus Goliath nature of his efforts. Furniture Row is a small, medium-market sort of team, compared to Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing.

In fact, it seeks help from the bigger teams.

From 2010 to 2015, it had a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet.

This season, it switched to Toyota and the Gibbs team.

The results this year are pretty good, with a win in the Coca-Cola 500, a pole there and in Kansas, second place in the Daytona 500 and four other top-10 finishes.

He enters the FireKeepers Casino 400 as the laps-led leader in the series, with 809. Truex also had the best 10-consecutive-lap average speed in practice Saturday, at 191.991, just ahead of Brad Keselowski at 191.968

“We just keep digging and never give up” Truex said. “Front row starting spot is pretty decent.”

Kindred spirits

The Coca-Cola 600 race over Memorial Day weekend set a new standard for domination in the 67-year history of the premier series in NASCAR.

Truex led 392 of 400 laps, most ever in the series, and he led for 588 miles, also the most in history.

Martin Truex Jr. (78) finished fourth in the Chase last year.

His fourth career win came close to locking down a berth in the Chase.

But another aspect of the victory thrilled many Sprint Cup fans. Truex has had so many tough breaks in his career that seeing him run a nearly perfect race seemed like justice done, in addition to excitement.

Even this season, pure tough luck wiped away potential winning efforts at Texas, Kansas and Dover.

His position in NASCAR with a middling team punching over its weight is reminiscent of some of the racing of the late Benny Parsons, the former Detroit taxicab driver who was series champion in 1973.

Parsons will be a 2017 NASCAR Hall of Famer, it was announced two weeks ago.

Known as a “people’s champion” because of his everyman ways, relaxed personality and for working in a gas station in Detroit and his father’s taxicab company just before he began his driving career, Parsons did a lot of competitive running for small teams with lesser resources, just like Truex.

Parsons had 23 top-10 finishes for L.G. DeWitt Racing in 1970, and won the 1973 Winston Cup, as it was then known, for the same small team.

DeWitt became the first NASCAR owner to become a millionaire, but a bit like Furniture Row Racing, it was not a well-heeled team.

Parsons and DeWitt had a conversation during the last race of the championship season, when the championship was clinched, that is part of NASCAR lore. In a wreck on Lap 13 at the Rockingham Speedway, the entire right side of Parson’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo was ripped off. Even some of the steel bars and down to the roll bars and roll cage were gone.

It looked like a championship lost for Parsons.

But despite the meager resources of the DeWitt team, even augmented by a Rockingham, North Carolina, car dealer named Russell Bennett, Parson’s crew worked maniacally to get the car back on the track. When they were done, and just before Parsons got back behind the wheel, according to Parsons’ son, Keith, DeWitt approached his driver.

“Benny, are you sure this car is safe?” DeWitt said, according to Keith Parsons, who wrote about the championship for “The championship isn’t worth you getting hurt!”

Benny Parsons raced and won the title with a season that would have been remarkably consistent, even if he had been driving for a richer team.

Michigan roots

Truex tries to do the same thing, every season. And, like Parsons, he has some Michigan roots, even beyond the good fishing of “Pure Michigan.”

A new sponsor for three races this season is Auto-Owners Insurance of Lansing, and his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex is a Brighton native.

Martin Truex Jr. and Brighton native Sherry Pollex celebrate Truex's victory at Pocono in June 2015.

“I went to Spencer Elementary and Scranton Middle School,” said Pollex, who moved to Florida during her freshman year in high school.

She was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer in August 2014, the week of the second Sprint Cup race at MIS. She completed chemotherapy in January.

At Charlotte, she celebrated with Truex in the winner’s circle, where she wore no wig.

“I don't really get nervous unless we're at places like Talladega and Daytona,” Pollex said. “I don't like the big pack racing.

“But most of the other tracks I'm fine! I've been traveling with Martin for 11 years so you get used to it being just another day at the office.”

A national spokeswoman on ovarian cancer awareness, Pollex organizes an annual event, “Catwalk for a Cause,” which last month raised about $400,000 for pediatric cancer research and ovarian cancer awareness. About 600 people attended the event, and children with pediatric cancer from the Charlotte area walked the runway with NASCAR drivers and their wives.

Pollex also said she is a huge fan of the Red Wings.

“Growing up just outside of Detroit, my family and I have been Red Wings fans our whole lives,” she said. “Gordie Howe was a legend on and off the ice and will surely be missed.”

It all gives racing at MIS a hometown feel for Truex.

“Let’s just call Michigan an adopted home track and state,” he said. “We have a blast each time we go to Michigan, catch a lot of fish -- and please don’t ask where because I am not giving away any secrets where the fish are biting.”

He finished in third in both races at MIS last season, and he will start from the second qualifying slot Sunday, although NASCAR docked his advantageous second pit position because of a delay in his preparation.

His pit is now the 13th slot.

“Michigan is one of those tracks where we feel we can do well and contend for the win,” Truex said. “I have had success there, had a couple of runner-up finishes and ran well in last year’s races.”