Win the pole. Check. Lead the most laps. Check. Win all the stages. Check. Win at Kentucky for the second year in a row. Check.
Martin Truex Jr. checked all the boxes this weekend checking off the final box Sunday night winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series Quaker State 400 holding off Ryan Blaney by just over 2 seconds.
Unlike last season Sunday’s win wasn’t an easy task.
Truex did indeed lead the most laps and won both stages and led more laps this time around (174) than he did in last year’s race (152), but unlike last year when he took the lead and never looked back, Sunday Truex had to re-take the lead on several occasions, the final time on lap 224.
Once he got the lead back for the final time Truex didn’t need a perfect late race restart like last year, instead he cruised to a drama free win for his 19th career victory and his fourth of the season.
“You never know how these races are going to play out,” Truex said. “You never know quite what is going to happen and we had such a strong Toyota tonight they weren’t going to beat us. You never know how they’re going to turn out, so we just keep our heads down. We don’t get too excited. We keep working on the race car and trying to stay calm and not get ahead of ourselves, so we had to make a lot of adjustments tonight on the car and had to battle back a from a few times getting passed for the lead and coming out of the pits second or third, but this Auto-Owners Toyota was amazing tonight.”
While Truex was cruising up front it was a rally race for several others. Chief among those was Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski was leading during a round of green flag stops on lap 39. During those stops Keselowski was hit with a speeding penalty. He fell deep in the pack and was just outside the top 10 when his crew called for a two tire stop after Stage 2. Keselowski came out with the lead and held off Truex who had four tires on the restart on lap 167. Keselowski would hold the lead until lap 201 when Truex was finally able to get by. Keselowski would hold on to finish third.
“It was a good call from my crew chief, Paul Wolfe,” Keselowski said. “We had better speed than we’ve had at the mile-and-a-halves, but not enough to run with the 78. He eventually got by us there and I thought we might have had a shot at it if we could have restarted fourth there, but we kind of cycled back to sixth and it wasn’t enough to be able to make something happen there.”
Kyle Busch was fourth, Kevin Harvick fifth.
The final challenge for Truex came from Kurt Busch who tried the two-tire strategy during a caution for a crash from JJ Yeley on lap 207. Busch came out with the lead and held it until lap 224. Busch would finish sixth.
“I really enjoyed the way Billy Scott called the race because our lap times were really strong on the super-long runs, and that’s why he left me out there in Stage 1,” Busch said. “We didn’t get points, but it put us in good position for Stage 2 and then we were ahead of the game to make a call again. It just kept us ahead the whole night.”
Erik Jones, who won his first Cup race last week at Daytona overcame a vibration that forced him to fight back trough the field to finish seventh.
Aric Almirola was 8th.
Perhaps the biggest comeback of the race started even before the green flag fell. Kyle Larson, who had qualified 18th missed pre-race diver intros and was forced to start from the back of the field. He 19th by the end of the first stage, fifth by lap 91 and third by lap 145.
Larson started losing spots and reported his track bar was loose. During the lap 209 pit stops, Larson had an extended pit stop as the crew frantically tried to make repairs. Unable to move the track bar, the crew settled for putting in 14 rounds of wedge and sending Larson back out. He restarted 23rd and finished 9th. Joey Logano was the third Team Penske car inside the top 10.
“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by the No. 78 and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run and it drove okay, just built being back really tight at the last 25 laps or so.”
Although Truex had to pass Keselowski and Kurt Busch, it was still his night as the defending Cup champion won all the stages; the only driver who has ever won a stage at Kentucky Speedway.
“You never know how these things are going to go,” Truex said. “You can have the best car and lose – I mean, we’ve done it 10, 15 times the last four years, so you just – you keep your head down, you keep digging and you try to be ready for whatever they can throw at you and tonight we were.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for next Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301.