Martin Truex Jr. tames the Lady in Black with impressive Darlington win

Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 4, 2016 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Getty Images)

Martin Truex, Jr., driver of the #78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 4, 2016 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Getty Images)

It was a night of firsts for Martin Truex Jr.  Truex wasn’t the fastest car over the course of 500 of the toughest miles in NASCAR Sunday night, but thanks to flawless pit stops that gave him spots on the track, Truex was able to lead the final 12 laps to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

“This is just – this is unbelievable.,” Truex said after his first Darlington win. “So many people to thank obviously. I’ve always loved this race track. I’ve led a lot of laps here in my career. I feel like just something always happened and just so proud to get to victory lane with this group.”

A week after a disappointing 20th place finish at Michigan International Speedway, thanks in part to pit road issues, Truex held off the dominate car of Kevin Harvick to win his fifth career race and his second of the season.  It marks the first time Truex has won more than one race in a season in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.

“The pit crew was flawless tonight,” Truex said. “They won us the race. They took a lot of heat from last week with what happened.”

While Truex could claim his pit crew helped him to victory, for second place finisher Kevin Harvick it was his pit crew that arguably lost him the race. For Harvick, who led a race high 214 laps from the pole, it was another race win snatched away due to issues on pit road.  Harvick was in command at many times during the race but problems with pit stops under green and during the races’ 10 cautions lost him 17 positions on the track, and left him short of victory yet again.

“I’m over being a cheerleader,” an obviously less than pleased Harvick said after the race. “Those guys get paid a lot of money to perform on pit road, and cheerleading hasn’t really been working. You’ve got to get after it on pit road and do your job.”

Harvick was able to get out second on the final stops with 10 laps to go. But Truex was able to grab the lead bringing Kyle Larson with him into second. Harvick got by Larson and in the final laps the race was between the Truex and Harvick.  Harvick got as near as a half a second, but in the final three laps, Truex was able to stretch out his lead to win by 0.606 seconds.

The runner-up finish for Harvick marked the third time in the last three Truex wins that he has finished second to him.  Truex now joins a list of names who have won the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500 in the same year including David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon.  Carl Edwards also accomplished the feat last season.

“You know, we weren’t handling that bad all night,” Truex said. “We just kept getting on both sides of it – we’d get too tight one run, too loose one run. Our car would change too much throughout a run and we just kept tweaking small things here or there and I think it was about 80 or 90 to go he (Cole Pearn, crew chief) made one adjustment and the thing just lit up and took off and from there it was just awesome to drive, so the 42 (Kyle Larson) was really strong tonight. I don’t know that we’d have been able to pass him, but our guys beat him out of the pits and that was the race right there.”

Harvick was the class of the field early on, but his pit road issues gave Brad Keselowski and later Kyle Larson to lead laps. Keselowski led 47 laps but two loose wheels brought him in for unscheduled stops and Larson led 45 laps only to come up just short a week after his first career win.  Larson finished third behind Harvick.

“We were able to get past Denny (Hamlin) and get to the lead and lead some laps,” Larson said.  “We had a really good car out front.  In traffic, I was just too tight for a little while and as we went I would get too loose on exit, but I found some lines that worked for me and that helped, but a tough race.  It is good to come back after the win last week and finish third.”

Denny Hamlin was fourth, Joey Logano fifth, Matt Kenseth sixth, Kasey Kahne seventh, Ryan Newman eighth, with Keselowski ninth.  Chase Elliott who ran inside the top five much of the night faded late but held on for 10th. The full results can be found here.

There was a total of 10 cautions that included Tony Stewart who lost an engine and finished 35th in his final Darlington race and Kurt Busch who crashed after tangling with Paul Menard on lap 327.  Stewart also tangled with Brian Scott earlier in the race sending Scott’s Chevy spinning after the two made contact earlier in the same lap. NASCAR called both Stewart and his crew chief in for  meeting after the race.  Scott was uninjured and finished 39th.

The next race will set the field for the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway will be held Saturday night September 10 with live coverage on the NBC Sports Network.

NOTE: The No. 31 car of Ryan Newman and No. 42 car of Kyle Larson both failed post-race LIS (laser inspection station) inspection. Any resulting penalties will be announced mid-week.

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