Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday redefined what it means to have a dominant car at Kentucky Speedway.
His winning performance in the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts was a throwback to the days when NASCAR drivers beat their competition by laps, not seconds.
"I think this was probably the best car I've ever had in my entire career," said Truex, who started second and led a race-high 152 laps in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota. "I can never recall saving fuel and pulling away from everybody before. It was pretty amazing.”
A caution two laps from the scheduled finish sent the race into overtime and cast it all in doubt.
There were eight cars on the lead lap and Truex's lead was so large - more than 15 seconds over Kyle Larson when Kurt Busch’s engine expired - that those behind him could pit under caution without risk of losing too much position.
Truex stayed out on old tires and looked like a sitting duck for the overtime finish.
"I thought we were dead,” he said upon climbing out of his car. “I thought we were done.”
Truex chose the outside lane for the decisive restart with pole and two-time Quaker State 400 winner Kyle Busch on his inside. Busch took two tires. Larson took four tires and came off pit road in fourth place. He lined up behind Truex.
Truex got a push from Larson on the restart and made it to the commitment line. Shortly after, Matt Kenseth spun in Turn 4. That triggered a multi-car wreck that brought out the caution and handed the victory to Truex, who crossed the finish line below the checkered and yellow flags on the 174th and final lap.
Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, explained his decision to stay out rather than bring his driver onto pit road for a fresh set of tires for the final restart.
“I knew there were so many lapped cars in between us all when that yellow came that they were just going to do whatever we did,” Pearn said. “I was going to have to make the call and they were going to have plenty of time to think about it by the time they had to hit pit road. I just figured if we were to come in and pit, you’re going to have at least three or four of them stay out and then all of a sudden you’re going to be buried and there’s no chance you’re going to get there in two laps. So, although being on old tires up front wasn’t a great situation, it was the better of the two.”
Truex swept all three stages and led the final 46 laps. The victory was his first in the Quaker State 400 and third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory on a 1.5-mile track this season.
The racing surface at Kentucky Speedway received a fresh layer of asphalt over the offseason and track operations personnel worked tirelessly to condition the track before the race in an effort to widen the racing groove in the corners and encourage passing opportunities.
Larson finished second in a display that proved it was possible to pass.
He started 40th in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet after failing to pass pre-qualifying inspection and twice charged from deep in the field to the front.
Over the course of the race, Larson made 90 green-flag passes and 51 quality passes, which are defined as passing a top-15 car under green.
“We had a good car,” Larson said. “We weren’t able to qualify because we didn’t pass tech but I knew we’d be alright. I felt like I could roll through (Turns) 3 and 4 good in practice, and I felt like that would be the place to pass. It turned out to be that way in the race.”
Chase Elliott finished third followed by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, who earlier in the day won the rescheduled XFINITY Series race then led 112 laps in the Quaker State 400.
Truex’s car was so fast that it allowed him to shoot from fifth place on Lap 167 to first by Lap 171. He extended his lead to double-digit seconds until Kurt Busch’s engine blew up to set up the final restart. The advantage was so vast that it remained virtually intact after the field cycled through green flag pit stops with less than 40 laps remaining.
Kentucky Speedway has proven to be a good track for Truex. Entering Saturday, he had finished in the top-10 three times and completed every lap in six Cup Series starts at the track.
The 2016 Quaker State 400 was the track’s first Cup Series race since the racing surface was repaved and partially reconfigured. Truex led 46 laps and finished 10th.
“We were really fast last year and felt good about that,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve had a whole year now to work on these racecars with this package and figure them out and feel like this kind of racetrack kind of suits us. We felt good coming in and we definitely remembered last year, the one that got away on fuel mileage. So it was a little bit of motivation.”
Saturday was likely Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final run at Kentucky Speedway after he announced earlier this year plans to retire after this season. He finished 12th.
Three-time and defending Quaker State 400 winner Brad Keselowski and seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson made early exits Saturday.
Keselowski was seventh at the start of the race’s second stage but got loose entering Turn 3 on the opening lap with Clint Bowyer on his outside. Keselowski’s car hit Bowyer’s. As they spun, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson clipped Keselowski’s car.
The resulting damage forced both to the garage and out of the race.
“I just wrecked it,” said Keselowski, who finished 39th. “I got loose into (Turn) 3. I was underneath the 14 (Bowyer). I was trying to lay up and give room but just spun out as soon as I got anywhere near the corner. I wrecked myself and a bunch of other guys.”
Johnson finished 40th. Kentucky Speedway remains one of only three tracks on the Cup Series schedule where he has not won a race.
“I feel like we were probably in the position for a good top five tonight with all things considered,” Johnson said. “But the No. 2 car got into the corner and he was sideways before we got there.
“I feel like the car on the outside of him left him some room. But then, talking to Brad inside (the care center), he said he was just sideways before he ever got to the corner. And I thought I almost had him missed. I really thought I had him missed and I just clipped him with my right front. It broke something in the suspension and took me into the fence.”