Following a long and winding road, Martin Truex Jr. finally owns the biggest prize in motorsports.
The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota capped off a dominant season in fitting fashion –by capturing the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship with a stirring victory in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Some would define going out on top as winning a championship in a final year. I guess Alan Kulwicki came closest, and he didn’t want to go out. A plane crash cost him his life. Ned Jarrett retired late in 1966 after winning the 1965 championship of the series that would one day become Monster Cup.
In other words, no one’s ever really done it, by choice or tragedy. Matt Kenseth has one race to go, but he hadn’t won all year when he took the checkered flag at Phoenix Raceway. Of course, Kenseth isn’t really retiring by choice. He’s too proud to beg for a lesser ride and just ride around for a paycheck.
Within reason, he is going out on top. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going out on top in terms of popularity, but Kenseth won his penultimate race, and the exclamation point is that he proved Joe Gibbs -- or whichever pencil pusher who deemed him expendable -- wrong.
Mark Harris’s 1956 novel Bang the Drum Slowly (also a 1973 movie starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty) tells a story of how big-league ballplayers would hoodwink fans during spring training in hotel lobbies. They drew the rubes into a card game called TEGWAR, which stood for “The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.”
Pull up a chair, buddy. Me and the boys are playing a little TEGWAR.
The expression “nice guys finish last” is based on remarks made on July 6, 1946, by Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher in reference to New York Giants manager Mel Ott. It’s a paraphrase. What Durocher actually said, reportedly, was:
“Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why, they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place! Nice guys! I’m not a nice guy – and I’m in first place.” After pacing up and down the visitors’ dugout, the Dodger manager waved a hand toward the Giants’ dugout and repeated, “The nice cguys are all over there, in seventh place.”
Down the stretch! That’s where the NASCAR horse race is. Four races remain in the playoffs. The next three will establish the four drivers who will remain in contention for that one, winner-take-all race within the race scheduled for Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19.
Although there is a God in heaven, it doesn’t mean that Martin Truex Jr. will win. He has won seven of the 32 races to date and could easily have won five more. Four former champions – Jimmie Johnson (7), Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick – are in the final eight. Truex, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney have never won a championship, and Chase Elliott has never won a race.
Charlotte Motor Speedway was a mixed blessing, I suppose. It was my second visit this year. It’s the only track to which I’ve journeyed on assignment in the past five seasons. I enjoyed hanging out with old friends I don’t see much anymore. It rained a lot. The driving was tough, but I’m talking about my truck on the interstate, not race cars on the track. The racing is tough every week, but I don’t drive home in the backwash of a tropical storm often.
I didn’t spend any time in the garage because there weren’t many people there when the rain was falling, and the rain was falling for almost all the time they weren’t racing.
Robert Yates was a soft-spoken man whose looks were naturally imposing. He taught me an important lesson. The worst kind of sportswriter is the kind who thinks he knows more about driving a race car than Dale Earnhardt and more about building an engine than Robert Yates.
I’ve learned that, while experience has taught me a lot, I don’t work in the shop. I don’t hang the bodies. I don’t make the calls. The people who do know more than I.
Yates used to utterly beguile me. I called him the NASCAR Confucius because he often seemed to be talking with a symbolism that eluded me. I wish I could remember a few of the parables. I could have sworn one was in my collection of NASCAR humor, Haul A** and Turn Left (2006). Apparently, since my time at the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette expired in 2013, my stories in its archives did, too.