AVONDALE, Ariz. — It was evident from the first run of the NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Phoenix Raceway that Martin Truex Jr. had one of the best long-run cars in the field.
But the last stint of the race was a 25-lap sprint to the finish. And now, it’s the fourth time in the last five years that he’s finished in the top two in the championship standings.
Truex started the race from the 12th position, the lowest of the four championship eligible drivers. The No. 19 car gained a few spots early on, and Truex was in a five-way battle for the lead with Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney. Eventually, Truex powered on by to win the opening stage.
During the second stage, Truex never left the top five, as the Championship 4 drivers finished first through fourth. But in the final stage, the No. 19 team got a break while pitting during the green flag with 66 laps to go when the caution flew for Anthony Alfredo, who blew a right front tire. Truex beat the leader to the end of pit road — at the time, Elliott was the leader — to stay on the lead lap.
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Restarting as the leader, Truex powered away from the pack, as the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Larson and Elliott showed short-run speed throughout the race. In dirty air, though, it was a different story.
“We were driving off into the sunset,” Truex said following the race, acknowledging his lucky break.
With 30 laps to go, David Starr had a brake rotor explode on the frontstretch, as Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels called from the pit box.
With tires having fallen off, all drivers pitted during the caution. The No. 19 crew had a poor pit stop, losing two spots.
LARSON WINS THE RACE OFF PIT ROAD!
OH BABY! pic.twitter.com/QhMZXZfEUn
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“We just had a slow stop,” Truex said. “I don’t know what the caution was for, but just an untimely caution for us and we lost two spots on pit road and that was the race. Twenty to go, you’re not going to pass one of the fastest cars out there. We just didn’t have the short-run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 to go, it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air.”
During the stop, Larson’s crew gained three spots, rocketing him up the leaderboard to the lead. Truex restarted on the outside lane in the second row, clearing Hamlin for second immediately, but he came up .398 seconds shy of earning the victory and championship.
“I think if we would have had the lead, we could have held him off,” Truex added. “But hindsight is 20/20, and we didn’t have the lead, so here we are. Really proud of our team and our season. Come in here once again as underdogs and had a shot at it, so that was fun.”
Unfortunately for the 2017 Cup champion, it’s the third time he’s finished runner-up, and the second time in his three years at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Being that close to potentially four championships is frustrating.
“Just how close we were again,” Truex said of what he was thinking when driving down pit road following the race. “2018, ’19, ’21, that’s three years that we were right there. We had a car capable of winning, just for whatever reason it didn’t go the way we needed it to and then at the end there, we didn’t have quite enough speed to get to the [No.] 5 and then around him.
“I thought he would stay on the bottom a little longer and I would have a shot, but he moved up and then I couldn’t do anything on the bottom, so it is what it is.”