By Toby Christie, Editor — Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie
FORT WORTH, Texas — Fireworks singed into the clear Texas sky after a hectic overtime restart at Texas Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick became the latest championship contender that was revealed for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship race in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as the No. 4 Ford Fusion capped off a dominating performance with a victory in the AAA Texas 500.
But while Harvick was busy tasting the spoils of victory, another driver hoping to contend for the title, Martin Truex Jr., caught his breath after a feverish effort to save his championship hopes after a trying afternoon at the 1.5-mile speedway.
Truex was slated to roll from the grid in the unlucky 13th spot, but an engine change after qualifying relegated the 38-year-old to starting in the rear of the field. It wasn’t ideal, but Truex was up for the challenge.
“I’ll give you all I got, take it to the front and make a day of it,” Truex radioed to his team just before the start of the event.
By the first caution on lap 30, which was a planned competition caution due to a Saturday night rain shower washing away the rubber that had accrued on the track surface throughout the week, Truex had already knifed his way to 15th. He wouldn’t stop there.
Under the caution, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn opted to take just two tires. This elevated the No. 78 to the fifth position on the restart. Truex would remain a fixture near the front for nearly the entirety of the race. That is until a pit sequence under a caution flag period at lap 225.
During this caution, Truex’s team bolted on four fresh Goodyear tires and the driver was ready to continue working his way forward. The New Jersey-native slammed his helmet visor shut, and braced for the next restart, but as Truex came up to speed, he felt the one thing that no driver wants to feel at a 1.5-mile speedway where speeds run in excess of 200 miles-per-hour — a vibration.
Truex’s team told the driver that they believed they got all the lugs tight, and that he should attempt to ride the situation out. But alas, the vibration continued to worsen, and Truex was forced to pit road. Adding insult to injury, when Truex veered left for his pit stall, he inadvertently went through several pit stalls which is a no-no in NASCAR’s rule book.
Truex was handed out a pass-through penalty for the infraction. This sequence of events put Truex down two laps. It appeared that his great race was over, and that his championship hopes were on life support. After the race was over, Truex even began to think perhaps a higher power is intervening with his race team.
“I’m telling you, God is testing us. There’s no question. Had to start at the back, got to the front, hung around there for a while and then had a loose wheel there again. Just a tough day,” said an exhausted Truex.
Truex would go back to work, trying to salvage something — anything — that could help him regain some of his lost ground. Most of the field came to pit road for tires and fuel around lap 280. It was during this green flag pit sequence that opportunity presented itself as Truex stayed on track as long as possible without pitting. The call payed off when the caution came out on lap 297 for a spinning David Starr.
Truex, who was only one lap down by virtue of staying on the race track, had also worked his way into the lucky dog position, so the Furniture Row Racing team was back in business with just over 30 laps remaining in the race.
15th position is where Truex would be scored when the green flag came back out on lap 302. By the time the checkered flag was shown after an overtime finish, Truex had worked his way into ninth. Somehow, at a track and in a race where it’s incredibly difficult to pass, Truex made lemonade out of lemons and salvaged a respectable day.
When pressed on how difficult it was to pass, Truex did not mince words, and he even weighed in on lapped traffic which continued to frustrate him throughout the race.
“Just traffic was so bad and so hard to pass. It was bad,” Truex stated. “We lapped the same lap cars every three laps. You would lap the same guys and they would run – they don’t understand how hard it is to drive 20 mph faster than them on their left side getting in the corner. It gets you loose and it’s a handful. It was hard, this track is tough, and it was really, really hard to pass, but we passed a lot of cars so it’s possible.”
Heading into the day, Truex had a 24-point cushion over Kurt Busch who was the first driver on the outside looking in on the Playoff cutline. At one point in the evening, it looked like Truex could go into Phoenix — the penultimate race before Homestead — chasing Busch. Due to his impressive comeback performance, Truex will head out of the Lonestar state 25 markers ahead of Busch.
What this essentially means is that if Busch, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola or Clint Bowyer don’t head to victory lane at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Truex should be a safe bet to make it into the Championship race for the third time in the last four years. When he was shown the point breakdown following the race, Truex started to feel good about his chances.
“Overall, a good day. Luckily, we were able to get up front and get some stage points in the first two stages and then we had trouble, but we had it at least in time to recover,” said Truex. “Proud of everybody on this Bass Pro/5-Hour Energy Toyota and feel like we’re in decent shape going to Phoenix. We’ll go there and race hard again and see what we can do.”
If Truex does clinch a berth for Homestead and can go on to claim a second-consecutive title, he can undoubtedly thank a gutty performance at Texas Motor Speedway for saving his season.
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images