WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t have much to prove this year as far as his ability to drive the cars or the ability of the Furniture Row Racing team to build rockets.
But he did prove Sunday that he has a diverse set of skills, and in that sense, his fourth victory of the season and the 11th of his career will rank as a significant triumph. He won a race on fuel mileage, and earned his first NASCAR Cup win on the fast 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International course.
Truex, who let Brad Keselowski take the lead with 13 laps remaining because he knew Keselowski would have to pit, and also let Ryan Blaney by him, had to have faith in crew chief Cole Pearn’s call to stay out and save fuel.
“The toughest part really was just watching the 2 [of Keselowski] pass and go on and then watching the 21 [of Blaney] pass and go on,” Truex said. “It’s like, ‘All right, if they don’t run out of gas, we’re going to look really dumb.'”
Instead, Truex and Pearn looked like the smartest people on the Watkins Glen property. Keselowski pitted with three laps remaining. Blaney pitted with just about two laps left. Truex won.
“As slow as I felt like I was going, I felt like I could have run 10 more laps,” Truex said. “I literally was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I need to go even slower?’ It’s excruciating to go that slow here and to try to save that much fuel.
“I was barely using any brake at all at the highest braking race track we go to, so that tells you how much I was letting off the throttle early.”
Truex did have to hold off Matt Kenseth on the final couple laps. While clearly better than Kenseth, Truex made a mistake going into the next-to-last turn but still held off his fellow Toyota driver — a driver who is on the bubble to make the playoffs on points.
“When it’s that close and you see him saving and you’re saving and then you go after him there on that last lap, it’s disappointing not to get it,” Kenseth said. “Especially when I saw him miss Turn 6, I was like, ‘Man, I’m going to have a shot’ and he was so fast I still couldn’t get to him getting into 7.”
Kenseth left Watkins Glen with a 28-point edge on Clint Bowyer for what is the current playoff cutoff among winless drivers with four races left in the regular season.
“I’m second happiest,” Kenseth said after his 18th race at The Glen. “Martin is the happiest. We really needed the win.
“Honestly, I don’t even think about the playoffs. I more think about coming here for however many — 15-17-18 years … and not really having a win or an opportunity to win and never even really been that great here.”
Pearn knew what was at stake when he watched the monitor. He knew Kenseth was a little desperate for a win and the fact that Furniture Row Racing could be a potential landing spot — the team still must find sponsorship to fill the Erik Jones car for 2018 as Jones will replace Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing — would not deter Kenseth.
“I was just like, ‘Man, just keep it about three car lengths away, I don’t want him to … end up in the fence or whatever,'” Pearn said. “I was thinking about it for sure. And he did right.
“We kept it far enough away to avoid the suicide bomber attack. But we did the right thing.”
Truex not only has a series-high four victories, he now has earned 34 playoff points — 18 more than his next competitor. And with a 116-point edge on second-place Kyle Busch in the standings, he is set to have at least a 25-point edge in playoff points.
Playoff points earned in the regular season and playoffs are added to a driver’s total at each of the resets of the first three playoff rounds, and could make the difference of advancing to the next round on points if a driver doesn’t win during a playoff round.
Those playoff points are indicative of just how strong Truex has been all season. He has consistently proven to be the strongest driver all season, leading 1,315 laps and with 15 top-10s in 22 races.
But that only goes so far. A championship team must adapt to what the track and race gives them. The Furniture Row team played its strategy to perfection, although crew chief Cole Pearn proved a little prophetic.
“Before the race I told everybody, I said, ‘It’s going to screw it up — we’ll have a caution at 52,'” Pearn said. “And that’s what happened.”
So that forced Truex into the extreme fuel-saving mode. And now that he knows he can win a race on fuel mileage, that could mean more wins in the future.
“It’s a good gauge to have in your mind kind of for future races,” Truex said. “But just glad it worked out.
“It’s 11 years I’ve never won a fuel mileage race. I’ve dominated a lot of races that were won on fuel mileage; that [winner] wasn’t me. But to finally win one this way was pretty neat and definitely different.”