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Dale Jr. and Truex Jr.: Friends, competitors and champions in many ways

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LAS VEGAS — In so many ways Thursday’s 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards seemed like the perfect sentimental send off — a fond farewell for retiring superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a fitting championship celebration for one of his best friends, Martin Truex Jr.

Celebrating the two drivers and longtime friends on stage on the same night felt almost destined. It was certainly one of the most genuinely heart-touching times in the history of the sport’s celebratory evenings.

Their connection is substantial and long-standing.

As with his good friend Junior, Truex won back-to-back (2004 and 2005) XFINITY Series (then called the Busch Grand National Series) championships driving for the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s former team. Then, as with Junior six years earlier, Truex ran his first full-time Cup season for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team as well.

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The fondness between the men is genuine, abounding and as the banquet showed, enduring.

So much so, that it was Earnhardt who delivered a heartfelt speech in introducing Truex for the championship trophy presentation.

“To me and many who know him, he’s a champion in so many ways,” Earnhardt said, as Truex smiled and began wiping away tears.

“Like when his professional career turned challenging, his options limited, he blamed no one. He kept his head high, he persevered because he’s a champion person.

“While the love of his life [Truex’s girlfriend Sherry Pollex] battles the most evil of diseases, and he stands with her to make her fight his fight, he’s a champion partner. When he’s away from the track, perhaps enjoying his true passion for hunting or fishing, you realize this: He’s a champion friend. He’s the man. He is the champion in so many ways and no one more deserving this night.”

And while the two-time Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt has never hoisted a Cup championship trophy, the newly-crowned 15-time Most Popular Driver, has impacted the sport in bountiful ways and will continue to as he transitions from the cockpit to NBC’s broadcast booth in 2018.

First, he will serve as Grand Marshal for the 2018 Daytona 500 and undoubtedly he will continue charitable efforts that included an $888,000 donation from longtime sponsor Nationwide in Las Vegas — his time devoted and money raised for charities is a legacy that, for many, may outshine all his great achievements on the race track.

That interest in giving back is something he and Truex share in addition to their on-track legacies — another way the two men are connected and another reason why their time together out front wrapped up this season most appropriately.