LONG POND – Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. inherited the lead with 20 laps to go in Sunday’s Pocono 400.
Truex and his No. 78 team stayed out on the track while leader Kyle Busch pitted 10 laps after the New Jersey native had made his final stop of the day.
It proved to be the winning move as Truex mastered two more restarts in the final 17 circuits to secure his second career victory at Pocono Raceway.
“You’re always concerned on restarts,” Truex said. “You just never know, so much can happen on that stage. We were luckily able to get a good one. Just can’t say enough about everybody on this team. Cole and all the guys did a really good job last night.”
“We had a good practice yesterday, really it’s been a good weekend overall. I feel like we’re getting back to what we were doing last year, just thankful for them and everyone in Denver. This is a heck of a day. The 4, 18 and the 78, we went at it all day long and we came out on top today.”
After the team had trouble putting on the right-front tire on lap 53, Truex slowly worked his way back towards the front, and moved into the top-three to set up a tight battle with Busch (18) and Kevin Harvick (4) in the closing stages.
Before the pit miscue, he made a bold pass on Harvick in the first stage of the event after the two endured the lapped car of Derrike Cope. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota pulled away from the No. 4 car and won stage one.
“Those two guys were so fast today and we were all really equal,” Truex said. “It was a matter of who could get out front and the 4 and I stayed out on tires. We felt like in practice we were really good on scuffs so Cole made a good call there to stay out. Once we got clean air there, this thing was a rocket ship.”
Kyle Busch had the freshest tires of those who pitted, but wasn’t able to regain the lead while trying to get around Harvick and Kyle Larson late. Busch dominated last week’s Coca-Cola 600 and only got to the bumper of Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet in the final laps.
“We got tires for our final stop and we were leading the 78 and the 4 and then the caution came out for debris in [Turn] 1,” Busch said. “It looked like a shoe-bootie and then we decided to pit and put tires on again right there because we had 10 or 11 laps on tires.
“That’s where we got burned here in this race — exact situation here last year — so we didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Once I got back there, I just couldn’t pass those guys. I just got stuck where I was at.”
Harvick led the most laps on the day with 89 and lost the lead on pit road on lap 126. He never regained the top spot after that and came home in the fourth spot.
“We lost control of the race off pit road when we didn’t come off first,” Harvick said. “They didn’t do anything wrong, we just didn’t come out first like we came in.
“The guys did a great job and you win some, you lose some. You’re racing against guys like that and it’s going to come down to splitting hairs and the 78 and 18 we’re both really good today and it was a lot of fun racing with them.”
Kyle Larson was one of four drivers to stay out on lap 140 and shuffled between second and third on older tires. Larson hovered around the top-five most of the afternoon, but stationed himself in second in the final seven laps in his No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet.
His second-place finish matched his season-best, which ironically came to race-winner Truex, Jr. earlier in the season at Auto Club Speedway.
“I felt like my car today was kind of as good as it’s been all year,” Larson said post-race. “I feel like the Hendrick guys have definitely gotten better, as well as RCR guys. But I feel like I’ve kind of just been a step behind the 18, the 78 and the 4.”
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick hold the top-two spots in points as the Cup series heads to Michigan International Speedway next weekend. The Harvick-Busch-Truex champions trio have won 10 of the 14 races this season.
Pocono 400 notes from AP sports writer Dan Gelston:
Johnson in first
In the stunning stat department, seven-time Jimmie Johnson led his first laps of the season in the first stage. Johnson, who led as many as 2,238 laps in a season in 2009, was in first for the first time since Martinsville in the 33rd race last season.
Johnson finished eighth and extended the longest losing streak of his career to 37. It’s been a year since he last won — June 4, 2017, at Dover.
A year after he made his Cup debut at Pocono, Darrell Wallace Jr. was the first car to the garage on Sunday. He appeared to blow the engine when he missed a shift and his Chevrolet rolled to the garage for his first DNF of the season.
Denny Hamlin spun the No. 11 Toyota and slammed into the inside wall late in the race and failed to finish a race for the second time this season. Hamlin remains winless but snapped a modest streak of three straight top-10 finishes.