The competition tried pit road strategy to get ahead of Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday at Kentucky Speedway because his car was too fast everywhere else.
The ploy worked, but only temporarily.
Dominant on 1.5-mile tracks last season, Martin Truex Jr. returned to form in the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart.
The defending race winner and reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion ruled the race, again, and became the first back-to-back winner in its eight-year history.
“What a hell of a night this was,” Truex said. “That’s what we try to do every single week. It shows just how hard it is. We made it look easy last year but it certainly wasn’t.”
The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota started from the pole, won all three stages, and led 174 of the 267 laps en route to his fourth victory and first on a 1.5-mile track this season. He led 152 in last year’s win at Kentucky Speedway.
“Martin’s got a really good feel for this track,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “It definitely plays into his wheelhouse. Right off the truck (on Friday), we had good speed even though the balance wasn’t perfect. We were just able to work on it. It was a smooth, just good feeling weekend. Never hair-on-fire, just steady as she goes.”
After crossing the finish line 1.901 seconds ahead of Ryan Blaney, and finishing a celebratory burnout, his car seemed like it didn’t want to quit going.
Truex parked the car along the frontstretch, climbed onto the window frame and thrust his arms skyward. As he did, the car started rolling downhill. Truex hopped off, obliged the winner’s on-track interview, then climbed back in and drove off to victory circle to celebrate his 19th career Cup Series victory.
Blaney fell one spot short of what would have been his second career victory. Even so, his runner-up showing in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford was his best performance through 19 races this season.
“I’m bummed that we didn’t win the race because we were so close to doing it and we had a shot,” Blaney said. “In every defeat, you’ve got to look at positives. Whether you run second or you crash, you’ve got to look at the positives from the weekend and figure out where you were the best and where you need to get better. We’ll take both of those away from it.”
Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, rebounded from a pit-road speeding penalty earlier in the race to finish third. It’s the first time Keselowski hasn’t won the Quaker State 400 in an even-numbered year. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is winless this season but led 38 laps Saturday.
“We were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “As the race progressed, we couldn’t stay with him. All in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile-and-a-half this year. That’s something commendable for my team.”
Truex passed Kurt Busch twice and Keselowski once for the lead during the race. Busch emerged from the final round of pit stops with the lead.
He took two tires to get out in front of Truex. Keselowski used the same tactic to take the lead before the start of the final stage.
“Those guys did really good on two (tires),” Pearn said. “It wasn’t easy for sure but we knew in the long run we’d probably march them back down and we were able to do that.”
Truex leaves Kentucky Speedway red hot. Over the past nine races, he’s finished fourth or better in eight, including three wins.
Led by Truex, NASCAR’s so-called “Big Three” all finished in the top five. Kyle Busch finished fourth in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Kevin Harvick finished fifth in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Neither led Saturday.
The three drivers own a combined 14 wins between them this season. Busch leads the points standings by 59 points over Kevin Harvick.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” Pearn said. “You look at the NBA and how successful it is and it’s pretty much all the best players stacked on the same teams. I think the world of sports likes star power. It just shows you that as the rules have gotten closer together and the competition has gotten tighter, the top drivers and the top teams elevate to the top the more even the playing field. That’s just it.”
The “Big Three” swept the top three spots in the 80-lap first stage. Truex won the stage followed by Harvick and Kyle Busch.
Kyle Larson finished eighth after starting at the back of the field because he missed driver introductions. He also started at the back of the field in the 2017 Quaker State 400. That time, it was because his car failed to pass pre-qualifying inspection.
Keselowski was second behind Truex when he pulled onto pit road on Lap 39. As his crew finished its service on his car, Keselowski sped away and beat Kyle Busch to the yellow line that defines the end of pit road.
NASCAR caught Keselowski speeding, and he was assessed a pass-through penalty. He dropped one lap down after serving the pass-through penalty but finished the stage in 18th place.
Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was the last car to pit in the first segment. He did so on Lap 67. That handed the lead back to Truex, who pitted almost 30 laps earlier.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who entered the race ranked 16th in the points standings, was shown two laps down in 32nd place after pitting twice in the early going of Stage 1. He finished 26th.
Joey Logano and his team opted to stay on the track while under caution at the end of Stage 1. He pitted 17 laps before the end of the stage. By staying on the track, he took the lead for the start for Stage 2.
Kurt Busch took two tires and made up 13 spots. He restarted alongside Logano on the front row. Truex was the third car off pit road. He took four tires and started the second stage alongside Alex Bowman, who made up 16 spots by taking two tires.
Busch passed Logano for the lead on the restart and Truex followed past the No. 22 Ford.
Truex pulled to within a car length of Busch’s bumper on Lap 95 and passed him four laps later. A flat right front tire on Bowman’s car sent his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet into the Turn 3 wall, bringing out a caution on Lap 111.
Truex maintained the lead after pit stops, but endured a considerable challenge on the restart. Blaney made it three-wide with Truex and Kyle Busch as they drove through Turn 2.
Truex held the lead through the end of the second stage. Bowman’s car suffered such extensive damage that he could not continue. He finished 39th.
Keselowski took two tires when everyone else took four to gain 14 spots and grab the lead for the final stage.
With 66 laps remaining, Keselowski’s car wiggled in Turns 4 and left an opening for Truex to pass on the inside.
A caution with 60 laps remaining sent the leaders back onto pit road. Again, another team’s two-tire stop took the lead away from Truex. Kurt Busch was first off pit road followed by Truex, Kyle Busch, Blaney, Harvick and Keselowski.
Larson restarted outside of the top 20 after a long pit stop that saw his crew try to remedy a track bar problem. Drivers can raise or lower the track bar to adjust how their car handles.
Larson rebounded to finish ninth behind Erik Jones (seventh) and Aric Almirola (eighth). Logano finished 10th.
KYS PR (HHP/Ashley R Dickerson)