Truex sees brighter days ahead both on, off-track in 2015

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Martin Truex Jr. has had a rough last year and a half, both personally and professionally.

First, he was released by Michael Waltrip Racing when NAPA pulled its sponsorship near the end of the 2013 season.

Then, while Truex was able to rebound by replacing Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing, last season was one of more struggles than successes, ultimately finishing 24th in the final standings, the worst finish of his nine full-time seasons in Sprint Cup competition.

Off the track, Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, has been battling Stage III ovarian cancer.

MORE: Truex’s girlfriend passes milestone in cancer recovery

But now, Truex believes things are turning around for the better both on and off the racetrack.

He has a new crew chief, Cole Pearn, formerly the team’s chief engineer. Pearn replaces Todd Berrier, who moved to Joe Gibbs Racing as its new director of inspections.

Pollex had her last chemotherapy treatment this past Monday and her diagnosis is optimistically good.

And Truex feels refreshed and ready to go in 2015, especially after a strong surge in the final nine races of last season, when he had a top-five, a top-10, four top-15s and two other top-20 finishes.

“For sure, it was getting better, we were starting to figure things out and see where we were making our mistakes, where we went wrong, so to speak,” Truex said Thursday during the final day of the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C.

“Getting Cole on the box at the end of last year was a really good indication of what this year’s going to bring for us communication-wise and those type of things,” Truex added.

“The year started getting better, it had more bright spots at the end. But I’ll be honest with you, the way the past year and a half had went, I was glad the season was over and I was ready to start a new one fresh.”

And Truex will start fresh with Pearn.

“It’s been something we’ve kind of preparing for,” Pearn said. “The last few years, I’ve had this in mind that this day would come and I’ve tried to take steps beforehand to be prepared for when it came. It’s just a matter of making the final transition and I’m looking forward to it.

“Any team that’s still relatively in its infancy is going to have those peaks and valleys. For the most part, we’ve been climbing the mountain and this is the first year that we’ve kind of been on the other side of it. … I feel like we’ve got a really good direction right now and think it’s going to provide dividends in the future.”

Added FRR general manager Joe Garone, “Cole’s been with us for several years. He’s ready to have the reins and we’re really excited to have him in the position he’s going to be in.”

Richard Childress Racing provides the team with motors and other technical support. Truex saw how RCR rallied around Ryan Newman during last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, and how Newman almost won the championship, ultimately finishing second to Cup champ Kevin Harvick.

“To see what (Newman’s team and RCR) did was impressive,” Truex said. “The most impressive part about what they did is they got better, better and better throughout the season.

“Every time they were challenged or their back was against the wall, they were able to step it up and do what they had to do to make it to the next round, whether it be Phoenix (when Newman made the final round of the Chase on the last lap) or having their best run of the year when it mattered most, at Homestead.

“That was impressive to see, and knowing we have the same tools to work with as them, is something that definitely gets us excited about the season and we need to do a good job of using those tools to the best of our ability and hope we can put ourselves in that position coming to the end of the season, as well.”

FRR is celebrating its 10th season in NASCAR racing. Based in Denver, Colorado, it’s the only Sprint Cup team headquartered west of the Carolinas.

It has qualified for the Chase just once, in 2013, when Busch made FRR the first single-car team to ever make the 10-race playoff. Last season, JTG-Daugherty Racing became the second single-car team to make the Chase with A.J. Allmendinger.

It’s difficult to be a one-car team at times, but Truex said the technical alliance with RCR has paid good dividends up to now, and with the prospect of even better dividends this season and beyond.

“As the year went on, especially towards the end of the year and we started performing better and were able to help share some information with them (RCR), and those guys not thinking we were taking, taking, taking, it started to really feel good and started to work well,” Truex said. “Being a single-car team is tough, but that makes it a whole lot easier for us, especially for me, talking about the cars, comparing the setups, that’s definitely helped that communication.

“With a year under our belts and working together, they’re starting to get a feel for what I am, what I like, who I am and how we can work together, and I expect that to be stronger this year.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins, was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

Follow @JerryBonkowski