Smart strategy prevailed Martin Truex, Jr. to his fourth win of the season, extending his championship points lead over new second place man Kyle Busch.
Emotions ran rampant in Sunday’s I Love New York 355 at the Glen at the legendary Watkins Glen International.
Fuel strategy snake bitten Ford drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney and elevated Toyota on top of the running order with a 1-2-3-4 finish led by Martin Truex, Jr., who sacrificed track position to save fuel and captured his fourth win of the season after a difficult weekend for he and crew chief Cole Pearn.
Truex, Jr. last pitted on lap 53 as others tried to save fuel. With 14 laps to go, Truex, Jr. gave up a sizeable lead to Keselowski and later second place to Blaney as he was two laps short of making it without pitting.
Keselowski and Blaney pulled away from each other and third place Truex, Jr. but with four laps to go, Keselowski had to pit for a splash-and-go, giving the lead to Blaney.
Adding insult to injury, Keselowski was penalized for driving through more than three pit stalls and had to serve a drive-through penalty, relegating Keselowski’s finishing order down to 15th.
Blaney’s lead was short lived as he reported over the team radio entering the Inner Loop that he was running out of fuel and came down to pit road with three laps remaining.
As Blaney pitted, Truex, Jr.’s strategy worked to perfection and regained the lead but he had three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers behind him including a hungry Matt Kenseth.
Truex, Jr. nearly blew the lead after getting wide in turn six, giving Kenseth one last chance to pass him but he came up short as Truex, Jr.’s car wiggled across the start-finish line 0.414 seconds ahead of Kenseth.
It’s Truex, Jr.’s 11th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory and his first road course victory since Sonoma Raceway June 23, 2013.
In an interview, Truex, Jr. said in victory lane winning at Watkins Glen is a dream come true after spending his childhood days idolizing the drivers who once drove the famous road course.
“I walked around the garage just dreaming one day of racing at places like this,” Truex, Jr. said. “I watched my heroes going around here. Some of my heroes were (driving) Busch North cars. For me back then that was a big deal. We’ve been coming here a long time, us Truex’s and we finally got us one.”
Truex, Jr. said in victory lane he trusted Pearn’s strategy to save fuel despite giving up track position.
“It’s so hard to let guys pass you for the lead and listen to your crew chief. Luckily for me I got the best one in the business,” Truex, Jr. said. “I believe in him so much and what he tells me and do what he says. It always seems to work out so I got to thank him, it’s been a tough week for him.”
Pearn said he wanted to get to Watkins Glen and focus on his job after losing his long-time friend Jacob Damen Thursday.
Damen, 35, died suddenly from a bacterial infection and planned of arriving to Michigan, the next race of the Cup calendar.
“It was the worst week of my life so far and to be able to win it for Jake was unbelievable,” Pearn said. “I know everyone back home was watching and I can’t wait to get home and see everybody. It’s going to be a tough week but at least we’ll all be together.”
Pearn added he wasn’t going to take the risk and call Truex, Jr. into the pits when his car was strong enough to win.
“I didn’t know how good we really were but I knew there was no way we were going to chance it,” Pearn said. “We had a great car and it would’ve been awesome to go to their butts for a little bit but to win one like that after losing so many is a big accomplishment for us.”
Truex, Jr. said this victory was also an emotional one for he and his girlfriend Sherry Pollex who returned to the track this weekend.
Pollex said she wanted to capture the moment when he had enough fuel to do burnouts in front of her and his Furniture Row Racing team.
“Martin has wanted to win at Watkins Glen for a long time and he’s come so close,” Pollex said. “I struggled between missing the moment and getting it on camera. I always tell him to live in the moment and put our phones down but it’s hard to miss that moment and not get it on camera. I’m so happy I was here, it’s my first week back and it’s a great present.”
Truex, Jr.’s victory puts him at 34 playoff points, 18 more than Jimmie Johnson with 16 and extended his regular season points lead over pole sitter Kyle Busch by 116 points.
Kyle Larson failed to lead a lap and finished 23rd, dropping down to third in the overall standings.
Kenseth’s second place finish was a season-best and gained 11 more points over Clint Bowyer in the battle for 16th playoff spot.
Kenseth said he tried to catch Truex, Jr. after going wide in turn six but wasn’t close enough of taking an advantage of his mistake.
“Martin had the fastest car. He really deserved the win and got it. He even missed turn six for me and opened the door wide open but I still couldn’t get there,” Kenseth said. “I got a good run off turn six and I couldn’t get into turn seven as deep as he did so I couldn’t get to him and to try to get a groove on him but he was managing his gap as well. As soon as he knew we could go and he just went do. Overall it was a good day for us, good finish. I hate to be that close and not get it but it was a good finish.”
Kenseth said he tried to save his brakes throughout the race.
“I saved brakes a little bit earlier and the last run I tried to save a lot early,” Kenseth said. “It’s hard for me to know how good were really are except when Jason Ratcliff tells me but I really saved a lot in that run. Some people got bottled up in traffic behind me so I tried to start saving a little for a lot of laps. I felt pretty good where we were at and felt like we were going to be better than Martin on fuel but we probably both had a little bit of excess.”
For the fourth straight race, Daniel Suarez finished inside the top 10 with his first career top 5 after finishing third.
Suarez’s career day was highlighted with a stage two victory over Truex, Jr., blocking him at the exit of turn six and led 14 laps.
Suarez said fuel factored into his performance and perhaps catching Truex, Jr.
“I knew fuel could be a factor because it was hard to have a full course caution, something big needed to happen but everyone was spread out,” Suarez said. “It was very hard to do those fuel mileage races because I really felt we were saving fuel. Martin wasn’t very far away from me but they were telling me to save fuel and I felt we were fine because I was saving as much as I could, down shifting early. I really wonder how much fuel we got left and I think I should’ve gone earlier.”
Suarez climbs from 17th to 15th in the overall standings but needs a victory to secure him a playoff berth as he trails Kenseth by 129 points.
Defending winner Denny Hamlin finished in fourth and rounding out the top 5 was Clint Bowyer, the highest Ford finisher.
Bowyer said he struggled on saving fuel all weekend after being one of eight drivers starting from the rear due to an unapproved adjustment.
“We had fuel issues all weekend long and our car wasn’t good,” Bowyer said. “These guys brought me a good car but we got to keep digging. Starting at the rear made it hard and never really was on the fighting side of strategy. I was kind of protecting the whole day, trying to figure out how to get that track position. I got little bit of it with racing but it was hard with this ground and competition. Again, it’s a good day for our Five Star Urgent Care car.”
Bowyer trails Kenseth by 28 points for the 16th and final playoff spot with four races left.
Kurt Busch finished sixth and his brother Kyle took home seventh after leading all 20 laps in stage one.
Kyle’s dominance however backfired after pitting for a loose wheel before stage two began. On the 45th lap, Kyle tangled with Keselowski in the Inner Loop, resulting him to pass several cars and unable to regain the lead again.
Despite pitting for fuel, Blaney finished eighth. Former Watkins Glen winner A.J. Allmendinger and Truex, Jr.’s teammate Erik Jones rounded out the top 10.
Sunday’s race lasted 2 hours and 7 minutes, the shortest in the Modern Era (1972-Present) after three full course cautions with the only non-stage caution taking place on lap 53 after Landon Cassill’s left front came off the rim on the backstretch. Cassill finished 36th.
After an illustrious 31-year motorsports career, Boris Said made his final start at the Glen. Said struggled throughout the day and finished 30th in Joe Falk’s No. 33 Genesee Beer Chevrolet.
Said competed in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for 19 seasons, primarily racing at Watkins Glen and Sonoma Raceway.
Said ran 54 races, scoring two poles at Sonoma (2003) and Daytona (July 2006) and his best finish was third at Watkins Glen in 2005.
Said won two NASCAR national series races with his wins coming at Montreal in the Xfinity Series (2010) and Sonoma in the Camping World Truck Series (1998).
The Cup drivers travels back to Michigan International Speedway August 13 at Brooklyn, Michigan. Larson has won the last two straight races and will look to gain ground in the championship standings.