Long: After 27 years away, lucky charm returned for Martin Truex Jr.’s championship

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — Its origins remain mysterious, just as if the good luck charm really has any power.

But a series of fortunate events followed after it was given by a Los Angeles firefighter to hall of fame drag racer Darrell Gwynn in 1989. After sitting in his trophy case 27 years, Gwynn gave it to Martin Truex Jr. on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Two days later, Truex pulled the lucky rabbit’s foot from his uniform pocket after winning his first Cup championship.

“That son of a bitch worked!’’ he said.

Was it luck? That would discredit the effort Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team did to win Sunday’s season finale.

Even in a year when things seemed to come easy for this team — Truex’s eight victories were the most since Denny Hamlin accomplished that feat in 2010 — this race was a struggle. Truex did not have the strongest car much of the race. He only asserted his strength late in the race when the sun set over South Florida.

He also had help. When title contender Brad Keselowski pitted on Lap 198 of the 267-lap race, Pearn called Truex to pit immediately. Title contender Kevin Harvick followed. They all would have to pit again but with fresh tires so much faster than old tires, it was a move they felt they had to make.

“We hadn’t talked about it a lot, and kind of realized in a split‑second way that that was what we were going to have to do to be something different because one split stop in the run wasn’t going to beat (Kyle Busch) being better than us on the long run.’’

Crew chief Adam Stevens kept Busch on track and in the lead until Lap 215. It was Busch’s last scheduled stop.

But a caution on Lap 229 ruined the strategy for Stevens and Busch. Truex led and Busch was fourth as they entered pit road. Truex exited first and Busch gained a spot to third but it meant he would restart on the inside of the second row. The outside line — where Truex chose to start as the leader — was the preferred line. Busch lost two spots on the restart and fell to fifth with 34 laps to go.

While Busch charged, he couldn’t get close enough to Truex make a move for the win and finished second.

“I just found a line that worked for my car with 20 laps to go that I couldn’t find all day long,’’ Truex said. “Not only did it help my car but it hurt Kyle’s car. He got to second, and when he did, he was three, four tenths (of a second) faster than I was before I found the line, and that was the difference.

“Just found it when I needed it. The timing was right, and we made it happen.’’

When the white flag flew for the final lap and Truex knew the race was “over.’’

The next time he came by, he scored the win and the championship by leading his 78th lap of the race in the No. 78 car.

“Are you serious, 78 laps?’’ Truex said when informed of that.

“You know, some things are just meant to be, I guess. That’s all you can say. Last year wasn’t meant to be. We worked just as hard as we did this year, and this year just it all came together. It felt right. It was our time, and that’s proof right there, there is a higher power.’’

And maybe the power of a rabbit’s foot.

Gwynn’s lucky charm came from a friend who often volunteered to work for Gwynn’s drag racing team at the California races. The first time he showed up at Pomona to work with the team, they won. One year, the friend took the rabbit’s foot to Pomona and rubbed the starting line with it. Gwynn won.

He doesn’t know where the rabbit’s foot came from but knows sometimes a little luck doesn’t hurt. His friend later convinced Gwynn to put it in his dragster at the 1989 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Gwynn qualified first, set the national record and won the title. The next week, Gwynn dominated the Keystone Nationals in Pennsylvania. He won the Gatornationals in early 1990 with the rabbit’s foot in the car.

Gwynn didn’t have it when he suffered life-threatening injures in an April 1990 crash in England that has left him in a wheelchair since.

“After I got hurt, the rabbit’s foot meant so much to me,’’ Gwynn told NBC Sports. “I took it out of my car and put it in my trophy case. This week, I had it hanging in my garage. I got a text from Martin and I asked him, ‘Hey can I count on you to fish in the tournament (at Homestead on Friday). Martin’s answer is always ‘Of course you can count on me.’

“It just made me think a little of Martin as a person. As I was going out of my garage, I saw the rabbit’s foot there and I said I know somebody who can use that this weekend. He’s been running good all year long but he needs some luck here because the way the format is, it’s all down to one (race). I took it out of the trophy case after 27 years.

“The deal was if it worked, he got to keep it. If it didn’t work, I got it back for sentimental reasons. I’m glad it worked. I wanted to him to win. I love his story. I love him.’’

Truex, though, is blunt about his belief in such items.

“I don’t believe in lucky charms,’’ he said. “I don’t have superstitions.’’

So why did he take the rabbit’s foot?

“I carried it because I respect Darrell a lot,’’ Truex said. “He’s a good friend of mine, and the fact that it meant enough to him ‑ this weekend meant enough to him for him to take something out of his trophy case after 27 years that he really believed would help me, I was going to put it in my damned pocket. Period. End of story.’’

And there it was as Truex celebrated his title.

“Whether this rabbit’s foot contributed to this win or not,’’ Gwynn said, “the fact is he won and to me that’s what I wanted to see happen this weekend.’’

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NASCAR America: Comparing today’s drivers to drivers of yesteryear

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With Kevin Harvick‘s recent run of three consecutive wins, NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte used the opportunity debate which NASCAR legends they compare Harvick and other current drivers to.

Burton compared Harvick to three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough.

“I think they remind me a lot of each other because they’re both very aggressive, they both got after it, good at every kind of race track,” Burton said.

Earnhardt sees some of 1983 Cup champion Bobby Allison in Harvick.

“Won a championship, won a lot of races, but wasn’t afraid to put his finger in another driver’s chest,” Earnhardt said.

When it comes to Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Earnhardt compared him and Denny Hamlin to the late Tim Richmond.

“Mainly in style,” Earnhardt said. “They’re the kind of guys that are a little flashy, a lot of flair outside the car. … Tim was that way. He wasn’t scared to flaunt it a little bit and he enjoyed life outside the race car as much as he did inside the race car.”

Watch the above video for more old school driver comparisons.


NASCAR America: Importance of keeping NASCAR connected to grassroots racing

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The importance of grassroots racing to the future of NASCAR is a constant subject these days thanks to the likes of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson.

Now NASCAR America’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton get their chance to sound off on the subject.

On Tuesday’s episode, the panel of analysts discussed why keeping NASCAR connected to the short tracks and lower series across the country is vital to the sport’s future.

“We don’t have that national series running old short tracks that draws people to the race track but also draws them to the TV on Saturday and Sunday,” Burton said.

Earnhardt brought up an attempt by Bristol Motor Speedway to purchase the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, last year.  The attempted failed.

“My heart was broken because I thought we had a real opportunity to bring one of the touring series, either the Truck or Xfinity, back to Fairgrounds,” Earnhardt said. “That’s where I think we’re broken or disconnected. The late model guys and the guys that are running on these local tracks don’t have the connection to the Truck Series or Xfinity Series. They need to take those series, Truck or Xfinity, back to the short tracks and bridge that link.”

The three analysts went on to discuss the short tracks and races that were part of their formative racing years.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Auto Club Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. was once again in championship form Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

That fact frustrated some drivers, especially Kyle Busch.

You can hear his frustrations and more in this week’s Scan All.

Here are some highlights.

— “I mean, he’s a (expletive) idiot for racing that hard 30 laps into a (expletive) race.” – Chad Johnston, crew chief for Kyle Larson after contact with Kevin Harvick wrecked Harvick on Lap 39.

Johnston’s tone cooled once Harvick owned up to his mistake.

“Harvick’s taking responsibility for that, so don’t sweat it,” Johnston said.

— “You did a hell of a job keeping it off that inside wall. I was watching on the roof cam and was like, ‘Oh Lord, don’t hit that one.” – Rodney Childers, crew chief of Harvick.

— “I don’t know what the (expletive) he’s got going on, but damn I don’t have that.” – Kyle Busch observing how much better Martin Truex Jr.’s car was performing

— “This thing went from absolutely horrible to even worse than that.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

— “I don’t even know what the hell we’re doing, what the hell’s going on and what we’re going to do next. It’s been the same all day. We haven’t made any ground on it.” – Kyle Busch as he struggled to keep pace with Larson and Truex.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Biggest storylines through five race weekends

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After five races in the Cup season, NASCAR America’s analysts assessed what the biggest storylines are ahead of this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton took turns sharing what’s stood out to them.

Jeff Burton started off by saying Kevin Harvick‘s success was the “easy answer.”

Burton discussed his surprise at Chevrolet teams underperforming.

“It reminds you in racing that you don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens,” Burton said. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more performance from the new Chevy body.”

Earnhardt was surprised at how big Martin Truex Jr’s margin of victory was on Sunday. He beat Kyle Busch by 11.6 seconds.

“I felt like in the first couple of races, maybe we got tricked into thinking the new inspections process had maybe leveled the playing field a little bit, even though Harvick won three in a row,” Earnhardt said. “Then Truex goes out and does what he did last year, maybe even better than he did last year.”

Letarte said his “big shock” for 2018 has been the “lack of change.”

“It’s the same players leading laps that we saw in 2017,” Letarte said. “Everyone is trying to catch up. I’ve always found it the hardest to continue to push your guys, continue to push your race cars when you’re already winning. It’s easy when you’re getting beat to motivate everybody.”

Earnhardt also observed how younger drivers have struggled to shine through five races.

“Across the board, the young guys still aren’t measuring up to the veterans yet,” Earnhardt said.

Watch the above video for more.