HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The Phil Collins song “In the Air Tonight” blasted through the Furniture Row Racing shop as the employees loaded their championship-contending race car for the long trip from Colorado to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Some crew members pumped their fists, others wiped away tears. Someone screamed “Let’s go racing!” and crew chief Cole Pearn kissed one of his mechanics on the cheek.

This team is more than ready to watch Martin Truex Jr. race for the NASCAR title on Sunday. Should Truex claim the Cup trophy, he will cap an extraordinary season. Every team hopes to dominate, but rarely does one consistently rout the competition the way Truex has this season.

What’s fascinating is that Furniture Row has pushed forward in a difficult year.

Truex’s longtime partner, Sherry Pollex, had a recurrence of ovarian cancer. A crew member died of a heart attack the night before Truex won at Kansas Speedway. Team owner Barney Visser is sidelined in Colorado, recovering from surgery and unable to travel after suffering his own heart attack a week ago.

“You know, I wish a lot of times we haven’t had to go through the things we’ve had to go through,” Pearn said. “I think they just made us all a lot closer and pulled our team together even that much tighter. When you’re grieving and having to go through some of the things we’ve gone through, it just leads you to kind of pounding into your work a little bit harder and kind of using that to take your mind off the other things.

“I think that creates a little bit of resolve and a little bit more focus for us, and just really want us to push to continue to close this thing out.”

When Truex lines up on the grid Sunday, he will be the favorite among the four championship contenders.

Only problem? He’s the one driver in the foursome who has yet to win a Cup title. Brad Keselowski won in 2012. Kevin Harvick was the champion in the winner-take-all format introduced in 2014, and Kyle Busch grabbed the title in 2015.

Truex has only been in this position once before, in 2015, when he finished last among the four contenders.

This is a totally different situation, though, as Truex leads the Cup Series in nearly every measurable statistic. He’s won a series-high seven races, has led the most laps, has the most top-five and top-10 finishes, and has won the most stages.

He did it all by arriving at the track each week and tuning out the adversity surrounding his personal life and the team.

“I’ve always been able to flip a switch,” Truex told The Associated Press. “I don’t know where I learned that or if I was just born like that, but I’m able to go to the race track and be 100 percent focused on my job. When I’m at home, I’m at home and able to do whatever I need to do for Sherry. She’s very strong. She doesn’t need much. We are very fortunate.”

When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, Truex stayed with her for surgery and missed a practice session for the first time in his career. He was in his first year with the team at the time, trying to build something with Visser’s tiny one-car operation while also salvaging his career.

Truex had been bounced from his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the 2013 season when sponsor NAPA pulled out of the organization because of a cheating scandal. The New Jersey-born Truex was suddenly jobless, unsure if he’d ever race at the top level again, and now a family crisis was threatening his attention when he needed to be focused on his No. 78 team.

It was Pollex who sent him to the track.

“She told me I had to go,” he said. “She made it easy.”

All of these factors have certainly helped Truex make a clear distinction between personal life and professional life. His priorities this weekend are his Toyota and a championship.

The race will be for Pollex, for Visser — the owner who rescued Truex’s career — and for himself. Pollex will be on hand, but Visser will watch from afar.

“I’m sure the story for me and my career would be a lot different if it wasn’t for him and his team and what he’s built,” Truex said. “Just so proud of what he’s done and so proud to be a part of his team, and I feel like we’ve come so far together in just four years. It’s really amazing.”


More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

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JENNA FRYER
The AP is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, as a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members, it can maintain its single-minded focus on newsgathering and its commitment to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism.