Martin Truex Jr. gets back to his small hometown of Mayetta, N.J., about once a year. The visit resurrects images of his childhood: fishing on Barnegat Bay, trips to the beach, and duck hunting in the woods of Ocean County.

He recalls, too, the moments that first sparked a lifelong passion.

“Some of my earliest memories were at the racetrack,” he said.

At age 10, he came to love watching go-kart races at New Egypt Speedway in Plumsted Township. By 11, he’d persuaded his father, Martin Truex Sr., a clam fisherman and former NASCAR driver, to invest in a go-kart. And off Truex Jr. went, eventually propelling himself to national success.

In 2017 he became the first New Jersey-raised driver to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship, the sport’s top circuit. Since 2016, he’s had 24 of his 26 Cup race wins. And for the past three seasons, he’s competed in the Championship 4, the final race that determines the series’ winner.

There have been profound moments in his personal life, too. He’s watched his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, survive two bouts with Stage 3 ovarian cancer. Through their charity, the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation, they’ve given back to cancer patients, donating nearly $2 million for new, innovative departments and clinics at hospitals near their home outside Charlotte, N.C.

Despite all of Truex’s recent victories, one win has eluded him: the Daytona 500. Sunday, he’ll get another chance, driving his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Every year I come down here, I look forward to the opportunity to win sports’ biggest race," he said this week by phone from Daytona. “It’s one that I have not won yet, and it’s one I really, really want to check off the list.”

Truex, 39, has a history of losing the race in heartbreaking fashion. In 2016, Denny Hamlin beat him by 0.010 seconds, the tightest margin of victory in Daytona 500 history.

“I’ve been closer to winning it than anyone who’s ever not won it," Truex said with a laugh. “That stung a little."

While that memory might fuel him, he said he’s trying not to think about how his day ended last year at Daytona. He crashed on Lap 191, and finished in 35th place.

“Unfortunately, that’s part of racing in Daytona, the crashes,” he said. “It’s like being in a traffic jam at 200 miles an hour. One guy makes a mistake, [and] there’s 10, 15, maybe 20 cars involved."

Martin Truex Jr. on the Daytona 500: “It’s one that I have not won yet, and it’s one I really, really want to check off the list.”
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images / Getty Images
Martin Truex Jr. on the Daytona 500: “It’s one that I have not won yet, and it’s one I really, really want to check off the list.”

Just envisioning Truex finally winning Daytona makes Pollex tear up, she said.

She’s been on this journey with him from the beginning. The couple met in a NASCAR garage around 2004, when she was working in public relations for another driver. She was immediately drawn to him.

“Martin is the most humble, kind, normal person you’d ever meet in your life,” she said. “If you ever met him on the road or on the street or at a restaurant, you’d never know he was a professional race car driver who’d ever won a race, let alone a championship.”

For years, Pollex traveled the circuit with Truex. But when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2014, their lives changed.

“I remember for a moment after diagnosis having that 'why me’ moment, and quickly, within two minutes, I was like, 'why not me?’ ” she said. “I’ve worked with kids my whole life who had cancer."

The couple refocused the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation, originally dedicated to helping children in need, and made it their mission to support initiatives related to ovarian and pediatric cancers. They had helped sick children before, but now the work was personal.

“It was crazy how life kind of works out and how cancer ended up affecting our family,” Truex said. “The relationships we made and the people we met [through the charity] really helped us through that.”

Martin Truex Jr. (left) and girlfriend Sherry Pollex posing with the trophy as he celebrated after winning a NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., in October.
Steve Helber / AP File
Martin Truex Jr. (left) and girlfriend Sherry Pollex posing with the trophy as he celebrated after winning a NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., in October.

Pollex took a step back from the NASCAR circuit. She wanted to strike a balance, she said, between cheering on her partner and spending time with her friends and family.

As she went through intense chemotherapy, she saw Truex mature. Racing was still important to the couple, she said, but it was no longer the be-all end-all.

Others at the track noticed. One day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. mentioned to Pollex that Truex seemed different, in a good way, she recalled.

“I honestly think it made him a better race car driver,” Pollex said. “I often look back and wonder, would he have won the championship had he not been through that whole ordeal with me?

“He was such a different person inside the car," she added. "He didn’t get angry when things didn’t go his way.”

The experience made the couple even more appreciative of the NASCAR community, which rallied around them. NASCAR drivers, some of whom Pollex knew and others she didn’t, sported teal ribbons on their cars to support ovarian cancer, and they embraced her when she returned to the track.

Truex is ever-optimistic about the future of his sport. While NASCAR viewership has declined over the last decade, some races saw as much as a 14% bump between 2018 and 2019, according to Forbes.

In places such as New York and Philadelphia, cities not typically considered NASCAR hotbeds, Truex said he’s encountered more fans than in past years.

“Because of the different ways people can view our races and the things NASCAR’s done to give people more options, I feel like our fan base is getting a little bit more diverse," he said. "It seems like throughout the years as we’ve done these things, we’ve run into more people who are watching and asking questions. ... It’s really cool and neat to be able to do that and see the fan base growing again.”

And he’s hoping his fans, including all his friends and family back home in New Jersey, will become even more locked in on Sunday after watching him finally win a Daytona 500.