It was only fitting that on the silver anniversary of NASCAR’s most iconic championship weekend, the storylines would be eerily similar.
This time, it was underdog Martin Truex Jr. instead of Alan Kulwicki winning the Cup Series championship and Kyle Busch was the former champion instead of Bill Elliott who came up just short for the title.
Twenty-five years ago, it was the final race in the storied career of Richard Petty, while this time around it was the final ride for Dale Earnhardt Jr. In that 1992 race, a new driver in the No. 24 car, Jeff Gordon, made his Cup Series debut. On Saturday, William Byron, who will take over the No. 24 next season, won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
In 1992, Alan Kulwicki wasn’t given much of a shot to win a NASCAR championship as a driver-owner competing against the big teams of the time like Junior Johnson Racing and Robert Yates Racing. Yet, he pulled off one of biggest upsets in NASCAR history driving the No. 7 Ford to a second-place finish at Atlanta and leading just enough laps to collect the bonus points to beat Elliott.
Martin Truex Jr. was certainly the favorite on Sunday after one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory. But, go back three years and Truex wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar as a potential champion.
At the end of the 2014 season, Truex’s track record was two wins in 323 career races. He had shown promise at times and even had a Xfinity Series championship on his resume. But, ask any race fan to name the sport’s best drivers and it’s unlikely Truex would be near the top of the list.
Over the last two seasons, there has been little doubt his No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota has been the fastest car on the track. The team missed its shot at the 2016 championship, eliminated from title contention at Talladega.
There was no danger of that in 2017.
Truex had the fastest car nearly every weekend and won eight races, the most since Denny Hamlin won the same number in 2010. If you look at the way the team ran from start to finish, it rivaled Jimmie Johnson’s best seasons and was arguably the most dominant performance since Jeff Gordon’s 13-win campaign in 1998.
Still, Truex had to hold off a hard charge from Busch at the end. Busch closed on Truex in the final laps but when it came time to go, Truex mashed the pedal and held Busch at bay.
Like Kulwicki some quarter-century earlier, Truex and his team did it their way. They are based in Denver, Colorado, instead of the Charlotte area — and the crew chief is Cole Pearn, not a household name to race fans before this season.
For those who know him, Truex is truly one of the sport’s good guys, the son of a former NASCAR Busch Series North driver and a guy with blue-collar roots. He stated earlier this year if not for the help of his good friend, Dale Earnhardt Jr., he still might be working on the fishing boats in his native New Jersey.
As a person, Truex has gained respect with how he’s been so supportive of longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, in her battle with cancer. Tears flowed freely for him Sunday, realizing he had won the championship, not only for himself, but for his team, his girlfriend and his ailing car owner Barney Visser.
Like Kulwicki before him, Truex is a deserving champion who truly did it his way.
Celebrating local champions
Kingsport Speedway and Lonesome Pine (Va.) Raceway held their champions banquet Saturday night at Meadowview Convention Center in Kingsport.
Kres VanDyke of Abingdon, Va., won championships at both tracks in the featured Late Model Stock class. With 25 victories in 40 races, VanDyke was the winningest NASCAR Whelen All-American Series driver in the country. He had three more feature wins than national champion Lee Pullam.
Other Kingsport champions were: Royce Peters (Mod Street), Jay Swecker (Pure Street), Kevin Canter (Mod 4) and Kenny Absher (Pure 4).
Elizabethton driver Carter Davison became the youngest champion in Lonesome Pine history, just 12 when he wrapped up the Mod 4 title. Other Lonesome Pine champions were: Sam Hurd (Mod Street), Joey Sykes (Pure Street), Jason Ketron (Pure 4), John McClanahan (V-6), Dillon Hodge (Legends) and Blayne Harrison (Bandoleros).
Local evangelist and racer Dennis Deese received the Roger Neece Sportsman of the Year Award.