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by Jeff Gluck, USA TODAY Sports 3:16 p.m. EDT May 15, 2014[/rescue_box]

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — When Martin Truex Jr. and girlfriend Sherry Pollex hosted the inaugural “Catwalk for a Cause” five years ago, the fashion show drew 75 people and raised $7,000 for charity.

At the time, Pollex thought she hit the jackpot.

So imagine how the couple felt Wednesday night, when 650 people showed up for the fifth edition of Catwalk, held at a furniture store in the heart of racing country. That’s 300 more guests than just last year, and this group included at least 11 NASCAR drivers (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick among them).

“We probably have more drivers coming to this than any other charity event,” Truex said. “And I’m probably not the most popular guy in the garage, right? So that says a lot about this event and what it means and how many people it impacts.”

The event’s stature in the NASCAR community has progressed rapidly. This year, Pollex set a goal for Catwalk to raise $250,000 and help children with pediatric cancer through the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation.

“It’s surreal it got this big this fast,” Pollex said, surveying a room filled with chic decorations, food and drinks. “It’s crazy. I think it’s because there’s nothing like it. There’s really not an event that’s similar to this.”

What makes Catwalk so unique? For one thing, those who stand to benefit — cancer patients from Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte — are participants in the event.

In between the models walking the runway and showing off the latest fashions, the kids get to strut their stuff and pose for a wildly enthusiastic audience.

Nine children, whose ages ranged from 5 to 18, participated in Wednesday night’s show. So did Truex and Ryan Newman — each of whom accompanied one of the kids.

“It’s a day when they don’t have to worry about being sick,” Truex said. “They get to come out and they’re the stars of the show. They can forget about their treatments and all the stuff they’re going through and just have a good day that’s all about them.”

Truex and Pollex are passionate about battling pediatric cancer because it’s the leading cause of death from disease for children. There are 13,500 children diagnosed with cancer every year in the United States; that’s 46 children every school day.

So when Pollex watched the kids make the long stroll down the catwalk as thumping music played, it was rewarding but also emotional. At the end of the runway, the kids smiled at a section where their parents and nurses who are currently treating them at the hospital were seated.

They also participated in a music video (set to Katy Perry’s “Roar”) and ended the event posing with stuffed tigers (and a live lion cub) with Truex and Pollex.

“If you don’t shed a tear, I’ll give you $100,” Pollex said. “It’s really hard not to. Even if you don’t have children of your own, it’s really hard.”

Truex said the night provided another dose of perspective — as do the couple’s visits to the hospital, where they paint with the children and make pottery. After losing his spot in last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, then losing his job at Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex has had a disappointing start with his new team at Furniture Row Racing.

But racing isn’t everything, and Truex said he knows that now more than ever.

“What, you’re going to complain and feel like the world is ending because you had a bad race?” he said. “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for and I understand that. (The kids have) really opened my eyes and helped keep me grounded and understand racing is not going to be here forever.

“There are a lot of things important in life. You need to give back and help people and be thankful for what you have.”

Follow Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck