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.”

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500