Martin Truex Jr. caps career season with 1st NASCAR title

Martin Truex Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race and season championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. capped the most successful season of his journeyman career as NASCAR’s champion.

Truex wrapped up his first Cup title Sunday night by winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he beat Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski for the championship. All but Truex were former champions, but 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.

Truex climbed from his car on the frontstretch of the track and was mobbed by Furniture Row teammates. Longtime partner Sherry Pollex, who had a recurrence of ovarian cancer this year, pushed her way through the crowd and embraced Truex.

Truex sobbed tears of joy.

“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 and millions of dollars 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 after the race. 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 one, then partied with his crew and fans as Truex collected the Cup trophy.

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, then he 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.

Truex reflected on that time earlier this week, when acknowledges he wasn’t sure he’d ever get another job before Visser offered him the No. 78.

“There was a night where I sat on the porch and thought there was a chance I may never race in the Cup Series again, at least competitively,” Truex recalled. “It was late in the season, found out I wasn’t going to have a sponsor, obviously, for the next year. I didn’t know of any rides available. I didn’t know anything.

“I didn’t know of any opportunities at that point in time, so I knew it was definitely going to be a tough road. But got fortunate that Barney Visser called and we were able to put that deal together.”

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