Truex and Kenseth stage intense late-race battle – but in vain

Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, leads Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Toyota, and Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bad Boy Off Road 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 25, 2016 in Loudon, New Hampshire (Getty Images)

Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, leads Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Toyota, and Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bad Boy Off Road 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on September 25, 2016 in Loudon, New Hampshire (Getty Images)

LOUDON, N.H. – For all appearances, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. were going to settle Sunday’s Bad Boy Off Road 300 between them.

Truex led a race-high 141-of-300 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Kenseth led 105.

From a restart on Lap 249 until the fifth caution of the race on Lap 285, the Toyota drivers ran 1-2, with Kenseth playing defense from the lead and Truex trying every trick he knew to get past Kenseth’s No. 20 Camry.

Truex would dive inside and pull up to Kenseth’s door, only to have Kenseth pinch the No. 78 Toyota toward the apron and break Truex’s momentum. Lap after lap, it was a constant parry and thrust, as both drivers wore out their tires in one of the longest sustained battles for the lead in recent memory.

Both drivers raced cleanly. Truex already had a victory in his pocket and a guaranteed ticket into the Round of 12 in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. And in a real sense, Truex and Kenseth are teammates, even though they drive for different organizations.

Furniture Row Racing, which fields Truex’s cars, is a customer and technical partner of Joe Gibbs Racing. Both get their engines from Toyota Racing Development, and they share information between the two organizations.

So it was incumbent on both drivers to race hard, which they did, without wrecking each other.

“I was trying to race as hard as I possibly could without getting into him, and he wasn’t making that easy,” Truex said. “But that’s his job as the leader. This racetrack is… it’s hard to pass at. It’s really hard to pass on when you have two cars that are very equal. I felt like we were a little bit better than him at that point in time but not good enough to just drive by him.

“He was running the line that I needed to run, and I could get inside him, but he didn’t give me much room underneath him to get any grip, and every time we’d go off in the corner I’d get loose and have to back out from underneath him. It was tough racing, hard racing.”

Though Truex covets a victory at the track where his father raced in both the NASCAR XFINITY and Busch North Series, he wasn’t willing to knock Kenseth out of the way for the win.

“I felt like I probably could have pushed the issue a little bit more, just didn’t want to risk contact, getting into him and taking him out of the race,” Truex said. “I know he’s got a lot on the line. We’ve got our win, so that kind of played into that decision a little bit.

“And like you said, he’s a teammate, too. It would be an awkward meeting on Tuesday if I knocked him out of the way to win my second race of the first round.”

The irony was that neither driver won the race. Taking advantage of a late caution, Kevin Harvick, who led a total of eight laps, beat Kenseth on a late restart and relegated the JGR driver to second place. Truex slipped to seventh at the finish.

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