Commentary

As the new face of DEI, Truex Jr. weathers the storm

All NASCAR drivers have their own legends by the time they get to Cup racing. Just so happens Martin Truex Jr.'s are true.

Updated: August 20, 2007, 4:11 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Somewhere between Asbury Park and Atlantic City, between Springsteen and Trump, lies the real Jersey Shore, where men and women churn their way out through Little Egg Inlet in search of Atlantic fish, shrimp and clams; where they chase the morning's first coffee and the evening's last beer with swigs of salt air.

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On Saturday nights, they fill the grandstands of the Jersey short tracks, from the half-mile clay ring of New Egypt to the asphalt high banks of Wall Township Speedway. And between feature races, they swap fish tales about one of their own, Martin Truex Jr.

Remember the time Martin won the New Jersey championship up at New Egypt? What was he, 14? ... Remember the time he rolled in here and whipped everybody in the Turkey Derby? ... Remember when people said Junior would never be as good a racer, or fisherman, as his dad?

Now, seemingly overnight, the 27-year-old Truex is the No. 1 driver at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and a likely first-time qualifier for NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup. As fans across the country scramble to get up to speed, the good people down the Shore keep spinning Truex tales. And their favorite son loves to hear them, almost as much as he loves to prove them true.

• Tale No. 1 -- Young Martin -- or at least his career -- damn near dies during his very first race.

By the time Little Martin was born, in the summer of 1980, Martin Truex Sr. was already a pillar of two Jersey communities: those of fishing and racing. Big Martin and his brother, Barney, had learned the clam business from their father and were growing Sea Watch International into a seafood powerhouse.

On the water, Martin Sr. was known as the Clam King of New Jersey. On the track, he was known as a badass, the warrior of northeastern short tracks who'd earned a nationally televised win at Loudon, N.H., in July 1994. Meanwhile, Linda Truex was hauling their son around to Garden State bullrings so Little Martin could race go-karts.

"When Martin Sr. started racing, I thought, 'Well, this is a nice hobby,'" Linda says. "I guess it was natural that Martin Jr. would race, too. Even though I thought he was going to kill himself during his first race."

Junior's take: "I was 10 years old, and we went up to New Egypt for a go-kart race. As far back as I can remember, I'd been at the short tracks, a little kid getting dropped off at the pit gate and working on cars with my dad. So when I finally got the chance to drive, I was so jacked up, I could hardly sit still. I could barely see over the wheel, you know, and we get going, and there's a wreck -- and next thing I know, the guy behind me is driving up my back and over the top of my head. I thought, 'Well, Mom just saw that, and my career just ended.' It scared her to death. [Little Martin was unhurt.] But the next week, we were back at it again. I think she's had a hard time watching me race ever since."

• Tale No. 2 -- The Clam Prince trades his kingdom for 825 horses.

By the time Martin Jr. was a teenager, his driving talent was obvious, proven by a handful of regional and track championships. When he strode into Jerry Salvatore's shop class at Ocean County's Southern Regional High School, he began to learn the art of welding, too. Martin Sr. knew that his growing fleet of clam boats needed experienced metal men, but Junior had other ideas: Maybe knowing his way around a blowtorch would help him blaze a trail down south to NASCAR country. "He was starting to spend a lot of time on his father's fishing boats," Salvatore recalls, "and I think his exact quote was, 'Man, I had better get good at something else.' "

Junior's take: "Being on those boats -- I have never worked so hard in my life. It taught me what working hard is all about. It also taught me that I really wanted to be a race car driver. I have to be careful how I say this, because I have a lot of respect for my father. He's my hero. There's nothing he's ever done that I didn't want to do, and if I'd ended up in the seafood business, I would have been proud to do it. But standing on the deck of that boat, I was thinking about the same thing I was always thinking about: racing."

• Tale No. 3 -- The old man returns to the sea.

What Junior didn't know was that Dad was secretly working on a project of his own, expanding his one-ride NASCAR Busch North team (think Double-A baseball) into an operation that could take his son to the next level -- and keep him off the clam boats.

Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr.

Martin Sr. put the resources of Sea Watch into building Chevys for his son. And on May 13, 2000, both Martins qualified for the spring event at the massive New Hampshire International Speedway. "I qualified fourth, the outside of Row 2, and Little Martin was fifth, the inside of Row 3, right behind me," Big Martin recalls. "The night before the race, we were at dinner, and he says, 'You know, I'm not letting you down to the bottom groove.' So I just looked him in the eye and said, 'Doesn't matter. I'm coming down there anyway.' "

When the green flag dropped, the old man cut the kid off and took his place in the coveted inside lane. Turns out, the kid had him right where he wanted him. "I spent the next 30 laps looking in the mirror," Big Martin says. "Little Martin was all over me, right up against my back bumper. All I could think was, 'Old man, you'd better go. He's coming.'"

Junior's take: "I had him. I'd been reeling him in forever, and I had him. It was the coolest feeling in the world. All those years of watching him race, and now here we were, out on the track and racing for a top-five at New Hampshire, of all places, where he'd gotten the biggest win of his career. Just about the time I was going to take him, my alternator took a crap, and we didn't finish the race. That turned out to be the only time we raced each other. I think Dad had seen all he needed to see, because he hung up his helmet and put everything behind me. We came back to New Hampshire two months later, and I got my first Busch North win and did it in front of all the Cup teams."

• Tale No. 4 -- With everything on the line, the fishermen land a whopper.

It's a truism: To make a small fortune in racing, start with a large one. For four years, Martin Sr. sunk his bank account into his son's racing, to help the team meet the estimated $5 million per year it takes to make the leap to the Busch Grand National Series, one rung below Nextel Cup. But to get Martin Jr. racing against the likes of Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers, the Clam King had to put his wallet up against the megabucks of Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. This was not going to work.

As the family sank much of its personal wealth into 2003, Martin Sr. cast his net one last time. He asked a friend to call another friend, who just happened to be Richie Gilmore, VP of Dale Earnhardt Inc. Says Gilmore: "The best man from my wedding, Mike Greci, was working on Martin's Busch North cars, and he kept on me all the time -- 'You gotta look at this kid -- he's the next big thing. Trust me on this.' So we looked at him, and I put him on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s radar. He did the rest himself."

Junior's take: "We were testing the Busch car at Richmond, and here comes Dale Jr. It was crazy. We talked for about 15 minutes, and he says, 'All right, tomorrow we'll put you in my car and let you take a few laps.' Well, then it rained all day, and I thought, There goes my shot. But we stayed in touch, and next thing I know, after all those years of struggling, things just started happening fast. He was starting a new Busch Series team and put me in the car two weeks later, and in 2004 I was running full time. I'm sure a lot of people were like, 'Dale Jr. is crazy. Who the hell's Martin Truex Jr.?'"

• Tale No. 5 -- Junior meets his match -- and it's Junior.

Dale Jr., never one to care what other folks think, tried not to gloat when Truex climbed into the No. 8 Chevy for a Busch race at Richmond. "Martin pretty much shut everybody up," Earnhardt says. "He qualified sixth and led 11 laps before the car blew up."

Little E was sold on Little T. Now he had to sell the next step to Big Martin. "Yeah, I think his dad had heard all the rumors about me," Earnhardt says with a chuckle. "Up all night, Club E, raising hell, all that. So we had a little talk, and I set him straight."

"Without me asking," Martin Sr. says, "Dale sat down with me and said, 'I want your son to move in with me in North Carolina. Is that OK?' I told him it was up to them, and he says, 'No, damn it, you're his dad. You're part of this too, and you're part of the decision.' "

The answer was yes, and the Juniors moved in together. During the day they worked on race cars. At night they swapped stories about their racing fathers, Carolina bullrings, Jersey short tracks and the future of DEI. This company was going to be the next great NASCAR winning machine, Dale said, and he wanted Martin to be a part of that future.

Junior's take: "Dad was worried about me moving in with Dale Jr., but I've learned over the years that most people have preconceived notions about Junior. He's never been a bad influence on me. Have we had a beer? Yes. But we both appreciate what we have -- and what our fathers have done -- too much to screw that up. The success we had together was almost too much to believe. Our first full year was 2004, and we won the Busch Series championship, then won another in 2005. When we were celebrating, Junior really went out of his way to make sure my dad got the credit he deserved. He told me, 'You know, we're making our fathers' dreams come true.'"

• Tale No. 6 -- The son of the sea weathers the storm and takes the helm.

In 2006, Truex Jr. was promoted to the Nextel Cup Series as Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate. His first season was an unexpected struggle, thanks to five DNFs and a stunning Rookie of the Year browbeating by Denny Hamlin. But this year, during a five-week stretch from spring to summer, Little Martin officially became a very big deal.

On the morning of May 10, Dale Jr. told the employees of his father's company that he would be leaving at the end of the season. "It wouldn't be true to say that Martin started working harder that day," says Truex's longtime crew chief, Kevin Manion. "But let's just say the look on his face changed. It's a different feeling to know that you're the No. 1 driver in your organization."

On June 4, that No. 1 driver climbed out of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy, stood on the roof and celebrated his first Nextel Cup win, a victory that pushed him squarely into the race for the Chase.

All at once, the nightmare of 2006 was reduced to a fluke, and the predictions that DEI would become "a museum" after the departure of Dale Jr. suddenly seemed premature.

The place where DEI's future was secured was the Dover International Speedway, located just across Delaware Bay from the Jersey Shore and only an hour up the road from Easton, Md., the new headquarters of Sea Watch International and its growing fleet of 34 clam boats.

The stands were packed with locals from Little Egg Harbor to Chesapeake Bay -- Martin Jr.'s people, the ones who still tell those Truex tales. The difference now is that those stories of success might finally put Jersey Shore racers and their crusty little ovals on the map.

Junior's take: "You know what I liked about Victory Lane at Dover? It felt like home. There were all my friends, my family, the crew. And when we were taking pictures after the race, I took in a deep breath, and there it was: salt in the air."

Ryan McGee, the editor-in-chief at NASCAR Images and a motorsports writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History."

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