Martin Truex Jr. laughed last week when I asked him if there had been any downside to life as the reigning NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion.
Since Truex Jr. held off Kyle Busch to win last season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and clinch the 2017 Cup Series crown, his bucket list is being filled by checks.
In Denver, home of the Furniture Row Racing team for whom Truex Jr. drives, the NASCAR star threw out the first pitch June 20 before the Colorado Rockies’ game with the New York Mets.
On May 31, the Mayetta, N.J., native was in Trenton where New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proclaimed it “Martin Truex Jr. Day” in the Garden State.
That visit to the White House, Truex Jr. said, turned out much differently than he expected.
“You know, you’d think they would just have a ceremony,” Truex Jr. said. “You’d come in, shake hands, chat a minute, do your ceremony and everybody would go their separate ways.
“But we spent a lot of time inside the White House, getting a tour and lunch. The president was very gracious in the Oval Office, taking pictures with some of the team members, just talking to us about general things.”
Eventually, Trump — who received an endorsement from NASCAR CEO Brian France during the 2016 Republican presidential primary season — invited Truex Jr. and Pollex to walk with him to the ceremony.
After Trump’s formal remarks, “we thought it was over,” Truex Jr. said, “and then he grabbed a couple of us and took us back inside and took us upstairs and showed us around. He just treated us really well, was really personable and made us all feel like it was a really special day.”
On Saturday night, Truex Jr. will bring his bid for a second straight Cup Series championship back to Kentucky Speedway where he will seek a repeat victory in the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart.
Truex Jr. returns to Sparta riding a building wave. He has finished in the top four in the past four Cup races. The 38-year-old has three race wins in 2018.
A season ago, Truex Jr.’s trip to Kentucky was memorable for two very different reasons.
The No. 78 Toyota that crew chief Cole Pearn brought to the commonwealth last year was dominant. Truex Jr. led 152 of the 274 laps run on the mile-and-a-half track. He was so fast, he had lapped all but eight other cars by the end of the race.
It is an indication of how strong Truex Jr.’s cars were throughout 2017, as he won eight times, that he is not sure the rocket ship he drove last year in Kentucky was even his best ride of the season.
“Oh, man, we had a few last year that were like that — just incredible,” Truex Jr. said. “For sure, one of the best (cars) we had last year was at Kentucky. It’s such a difficult racetrack to get right. But it was just one of those weekends where, it seemed like, we couldn’t screw it up. We hit (the setup) off the trailer, and we were fast all weekend.”
It was during last year’s Quaker State 400, that Pollex tweeted a picture of herself watching the race on TV from her hospital room.
In 2014, Pollex had first been diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer. Her tweet during last year’s Kentucky Speedway Cup race was a public announcement that she had suffered a recurrence of the disease. She subsequently announced in February that she had completed her final round of chemotherapy.
Truex Jr. said there is not extra emotion in returning to Kentucky Speedway tied to Pollex’s mid-race tweet from a season ago.
“I would say no,” he said. “I think about (Pollex and her cancer battle) all the time no matter what is going on or where we are at. I just hope things continue to go as well as they are.”
It turns out, there has been a far more meaningful perk of being the reigning Cup Series champion than getting to do cool things. Truex Jr. says the impact his greater visibility has had on his charitable foundation’s ability to raise money for causes such as cancer research has been significant.
In May, the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation announced it was donating $1.2 million that will lead to the creation of an integrated cancer clinic in a Charlotte hospital and a children’s emergency unit in a Huntersville, N.C., medical facility.
Being the Cup Series champion has “definitely brought about a lot of opportunity, especially with the foundation and Sherry’s story, to get those out (to the public),” Truex Jr. said. “There really is no downside at all. It’s all been positive. And, obviously, we’re still working hard on trying to get another (championship).”
Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
7:30 p.m.: NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Quaker State 400 (NBC Sports Network)