LAS VEGAS – Understandably, the proudest moment of Martin Truex’s racing life was simultaneously a source of enormous frustration for Kyle Busch.
But both drivers recall with indelible clarity the closing laps of the Nov. 19 Ford Eco-Boost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race that made Truex a champion and Busch a disappointed runner-up for the title.
For the record, Truex powered his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota across the finish line, with Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota .681 seconds in arrears. But the outcome was in doubt for the final 17 laps, after Busch passed Kevin Harvick for second place on Lap 250 of 267 and took off after Truex, who had claimed the lead off pit road for a restart on Lap 234.
With Busch driving a faster long-run car, Truex found a small patch of grip high in Turn 4 and kept Busch’s Camry in his mirror.
“For me, it’s probably one of my proudest moments, because I got put in that position, and my guys said, ‘Here it is; it’s all up to you now; here’s the lead with 32 laps to go – show us what you’ve got,’” Truex told the NASCAR Wire Service.
“It’s definitely one of the proudest moments of my career to be able to bring it home for them, after all they’ve done for me and giving me the opportunity they have and putting me in a position to be a champion. I was glad I could hold up my end of the deal.”
Though Truex hasn’t watched a replay of the race in its entirety, he relishes the memory of every second of the closing green-flag run.
“I can remember every single one of those laps,” Truex said. “I can remember everything that happened, everything I thought, when I missed the line, when I hit it, and, most importantly, when I found that little patch of grip up there off of Turn 4.
“That was the game-changer for me.”
For Busch, not so much.
“I tried that same patch – it didn’t work for me,” Busch said after Wednesday’s Myers Brothers Awards ceremony in the Encore Theater. “I tried to get as close to the wall as I could off of (Turn) 4. I was way too loose. I just didn’t have the drive-off that I needed, and I think that was a lot to do with being in his wake, just being behind him and having the aero deficiency that I had.”
The final 15 laps weren’t just a two-car battle. Enter Kyle Larson, who charged past Harvick for the third position on Lap 252 and, running against the outside wall, quickly rolled up near Busch’s back bumper and began contemplating his prospects of passing the No. 18.
“I got to third, and I felt like, if I was going to win or pass those guys – which I felt like I could – I needed to pass them before 10 (laps) to go,” said Larson, who was eliminated from championship contention by an engine failure at Kansas Speedway.
“I felt like, once we got to 10 to go, I needed to respect them and kind of let things play out between those two… I didn’t want to screw one guy and not the other.”
Interestingly, Busch contemplated letting Larson pass him in the closing laps.
“I actually thought about, with maybe 15 to go, something like that… he (Larson) was really close to me, and I was like, ‘I wonder if I let him go, and he gets in-between us, if he’ll go and try to race Truex and pass Truex and help Truex come back to me,” Busch said.
“So I thought about doing that, but I said I can’t give in to that at this moment of letting somebody else within the battle, because, if he doesn’t go up and pass the 78, he just pushes me further behind. That’s why I stayed the way we were and tried to fight it out.”
With Truex making ground near the top of the track, Busch tried a low line, and with three laps left, he lost momentum off Turn 2. With a head of steam around the top, Larson was there to give the No. 18 a nudge.
“I was hoping to launch him forward, but I kind of got him squirrely,” Larson said. “I’m glad he didn’t hit the wall, because I was just trying to help him out. Not that I wanted him to win over Martin. I just wanted to get him closer to make the racing more exciting, I guess.”
In the moment, Busch understood Larson’s intent.
“I knew that was a moment of help,” Busch said. “It wasn’t a moment of trying to screw with me at all. I knew what that was. It’s just that these cars are so loose on the straightaways, with not a lot of downforce, and of course we were on older tires, with higher air pressure and everything like that, and it got me juked up.
“But I was expecting that, and I was fine with it. It was all good.”
In the end, the bump from Larson didn’t help enough to put Truex’s title in jeopardy. But it helped to make the final 17 laps of the event some of the most riveting in recent memory.