The master of stage racing capped off his second stage sweep of the season after holding off the field with fresh tires in overtime
Stage racing has become Martin Truex, Jr.’s sweet spot after winning his 14th stage victory this season. It was this stage victory that mattered as Truex, Jr. captured his third win of the season and his second stage sweep at the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kentucky Saturday.
With over 40 laps of tire wear, Truex, Jr. held off points leader Kyle Larson (who gave Truex, Jr. the push during the overtime restart to pull away from the field), Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch after the race ended under caution due to an accident in turn four.
Involved in the accident were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Daniel Suarez and 2013 Kentucky winner Matt Kenseth as both collided into each other and collected Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace, Jr. All four drivers finished inside the top 20.
In an interview with NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider, Truex, Jr. felt his chances of sweeping all three stages were gone after a late-race caution when Kurt Busch put fluid on the track and opting not to pit with the rest of the field.
“I thought we were dead,” Truex, Jr. said. “This was completely unbelievable and so excited to win at Kentucky. We had a shot last year and got away from us on fuel mileage. I wanted to win so bad after that and its sweet redemption.”
Truex, Jr. added he was worried during the last 100 laps after leading a race-high 152-of-267 laps and coming up short of more race wins throughout the season.
“I worried every lap waiting for a caution especially at the end,” Truex, Jr. said. “You’re counting them down—the last 30, the last 20, the last 10—and then you get inside five and you’re like ‘oh my god, there’s no way there’s not going to be a caution.’ Sure enough there was but fortunately I was able to hold them off. The car was so stout and got a good push by Larson helped us a bunch.”
Truex, Jr.’s victory cuts Larson’s points lead down to one point entering the second half of the season.
Larson said Truex, Jr.’s car was extremely fast and wasn’t able to race against him.
“Martin had a huge lead and would’ve been fun to get to race him,” Larson said. “I had the second-best car and would’ve been interesting to get a restart with him earlier and hang with him on the last run.”
Larson also described his sixth second-place finish of the season highlighted by a costly speeding penalty and not being able to qualify Friday, resulting Larson to start 40th.
“I guess I was a little too fast leaving my stall and got a penalty,” Larson said. “I got to clean my stuff up and I’m mad at myself for making the mistake. I don’t really know if it affected the outcome but you never know.”
Three-time defending winner Brad Keselowski ended his night early on lap 89 after colliding with Clint Bowyer in turn three.
Jimmie Johnson—with no room to go—hit Keselowski and sent him towards the outside wall, damaging his right front wheel.
The accident ended the Johnson’s night and marked the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion’s second career last-place finish, both coming in the last two seasons (Johnson finished last at Watkins Glen Aug. 7, 2016).
Consequently, Johnson dropped from seventh to ninth in the points standings.
Bowyer only sustained left rear fender damage and finished 13th.
Keselowski—who finished ahead of Johnson—vented his frustrations about not having a strong performing car in an set of interviews with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and motorsports writer Jeff Gluck.
“It is frustrating. We weren’t as fast as we wanted to be Saturday. That is always frustrating,” Keselowski said. “I am probably as much frustrated with myself as I am frustrated with the situation and frustrated with the sport that we can’t design a better car than this that you can race without having to do everything on the restart. That is all part of it I guess. It is where we are right now.”
It’s the fourth time in the last seven race Keselowski has not finished a race, knocking him from third to eighth in the standings.
Keselowski will look for a turnaround at a track he won July 13, 2014, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire for the annual Overton’s 301 July 16.
Kenseth is the defending winner of the July race where Keselowski finished 15th.