HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. chugged another beer, left his crew guys on pit road after a nearly hour-long post-race party and bolted for the championship stage.
He had another celebration ahead with one of his best buddies in racing.
Earnhardt raised a cold one . Martin Truex Jr. hoisted a trophy .
Two friends who hunt together, own property together and once raced on the same team had another reason to come together: To revel in Truex’s first Cup title.
Truex capped the most successful season of his journeyman career as NASCAR’s champion Sunday by winning the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He beat Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — all former series champions — to claim the crown. He was mobbed by his Furniture Row Racing team, sobbed during a long embrace with cancer-stricken partner Sherry Pollex and thanked team owner Barney Visser for saving his career.
But he couldn’t forget Junior, the guy who gave him his first shot in NASCAR when he lured Truex from New Jersey to North Carolina to pursue a professional racing career. Driving for Earnhardt’s second-tier Xfinity Series team, Truex won two championships.
“I wouldn’t be here today without him. My path would surely be different,” Truex said. “There’s a lot of things that would be different if it wasn’t for Dale. He’s just been an amazing friend, and always there for me. To see how happy he was, genuinely happy to come to victory lane, I love him like a brother.”
Truex, the regular-season champion, was the favorite to win this title. He dominated nearly every statistical category all year — he led the most laps and won the most stages — and his victory was his series-best eighth in 2017.
So even though it was Earnhardt’s finale as a full-time driver, Truex earned his share of the spotlight.
It was the first championship for Denver-based Furniture Row Racing. It was the second title in three years for manufacturer Toyota.
Busch finished second for Joe Gibbs Racing, helping Toyota — the most dominant manufacturer this season — go 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, failing to give Team Penske a season sweep of the two top American racing series. Penske won the IndyCar title in September.
Truex also denied Ford its third win of the weekend. Ford drivers won titles in the Truck and Xfinity series. The manufacturer has not won a Cup championship since 2004.
Ford may not have had a realistic chance because of how strong Truex has been all year. When he finally took the checkered flag, he sobbed and struggled to collect his thoughts.
“I was a mess. I couldn’t even talk,” Truex said. “I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me, but the guys, the people who mattered did, my fans, my family.
“Then when I got with this team … they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”
Missing from the celebration party was team owner Visser. He suffered a heart attack two weeks ago and is sidelined in Colorado. After pouring millions into his race team, Visser watched it win its first championship on television.
Even as Earnhardt partied on pit road with his crew, he tried to put the focus on Truex. He had driven alongside Truex after the race and hit his car in celebration.
“I am so proud of him,” Earnhardt said. “This sport needs drivers like Martin Truex Jr., and everything that he went through as a driver, and everything he went through in his personal life, and everything Sherry has gone through, it’s just great. And they (Furniture Row) are the outsiders up there in Colorado, came down here and beat all of us from North Carolina.”
Even with that early success with Earnhardt’s second-tier team, Truex’s career took a while to take off. He had a ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc., which closed and 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.
He acknowledged earlier this week that he worried he’d never race again at NASCAR’s top level, at least until Visser called.
Pollex, who suffered a recurrence of ovarian cancer this year, reminded Truex of how far they’ve come when she embraced him.
“I told him ‘That’s why you never give up,'” she said. “That’s been our motto all along, ever since I started my cancer battle. We were never going to give up, and we didn’t. Everybody is battling something, everybody is fighting something in their life, not just cancer, but any kind of struggle that they’re going through in their life.
“We always say if you can fight a struggle with a positive attitude and just have a smile on your face and find the good and the silver lining in everything, in the end you’ll come out and karma will pay you back and good things will happen to you.”