Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday June 24, 2013
Martin Truex, Jr. sat in Victory Lane, wiping tears off his face at Sonoma and in an instant, the passion of NASCAR was perfectly clear. Here’s a guy’s guy, an avid outdoorsman and one of the most even-keeled drivers in Sprint Cup Racing openly weeping like he was six, childlike over a win six years in the making many thought would never come. Since the last one, at Dover in June 2007 Truex has found every which way to make second place the first loser. Speeding on pit road. Silly adjustments late. Tires blowing. Running out of gas. Blowing up a motor. Switching teams didn’t shake the bad luck; even hotshot crew chief Chad Johnston couldn’t fix it. Signed to one of the top-tier Toyota programs, with one of the sport’s most loyal sponsors, NAPA on the side the pressure was private but clearly mounting at championship-wannabe Michael Waltrip Racing. It’s safe to say we just saw the biggest monkey in NASCAR lifted off someone’s back in nearly a decade.
It’s also the one nobody saw coming.
Sitting in their haulers, crying a different sort of tears were a long list of road course specialists supposed to spend this weekend cashing in. With a logjam in the championship, 9th to 21st separated by less than a race’s worth of points heading in stealing a victory for a “wild card” cushion was pretty important for those who needed it. There were Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya, outside that bunch but whose victories here and Watkins Glen could be the lynchpin that launches them from zeroes to heroes. You had Jeff Gordon, he of nine career right-turn victories whose bad luck could be bombed to pieces with one Victory Lane trip. You had Kurt Busch, third at Sonoma last year and knocking on the door with small-time Furniture Row. Even a hot Joey Logano, who’s won a pole here before was considered a contender where slower speeds and slick design level the playing field.
Instead, all five of them came up just short, unsure if and when they’ll get another chance. The catch? Each of them can blame their own, self-inflicted mistakes. Ambrose simply just wasn’t right, leading early only to lose spots on pit road and never putting the handling package together to win them back. Montoya, on the other hand, was brilliant, rising up through the field from 13th to second. But the style was too rough, his car so beat up through run-ins with too many rivals (including Kyle Busch) the speed to catch Truex wasn’t there down the stretch. Adding insult to injury, the fuel tank ran dry on the final lap to leave him sitting 34th and lamenting a season that now, sitting 23rd in points seems totally lost.
“We had a lot of mechanical problems,” he said afterwards, angry with his team for not telling him to save at least a little gas. “And days like this, we throw them away.”
For Gordon, it was his own bad decision that kept him from rising to first. During a caution on Lap 25, for rain he tried to shortpit as the yellow came out, only for pit road to turn closed a second before entry. Too late to switch, he was sent to the back of the longest line for the restart and spent the entire rest of the day fighting for track position. On the final run, he had the freshest tires but emerged from the pack nine seconds back, a full planet away from Truex and was forced to settle for runner-up.
Two spots behind him came Busch, an early leader until the victim of his own self-destructive shots to the heart. During his first green-flag stop, he was caught speeding on pit road not just once, but twice, enough to put him a lap down at one point and send him back with Gordon. The fact he made it up to fourth was testament to this team’s willpower; Busch’s growing maturity also fought off the frustration of another mistake. (“My bad,” he simply said over the penalty that killed their chances). Still, it’s the fourth race, if not more where the No. 78 had the speed to take the checkers – just not the luck or the rulebook on their side.
Finally, Logano seemed a sudden contender, leading ten laps in the race’s second half before a final caution pit stop for fresh tires. It seemed out front, the No. 22 car had the speed but in traffic they were just never the same. An 11th-place run, in the end may have actually stolen momentum; it was their worst performance since Darlington Mother’s Day Weekend.
“This is one of those ‘wild card’ races,” he said upon exiting his car. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Surely, the pundits agree because not a soul was thinking Truex. If anything, Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Clint Bowyer was the hot pick, last year’s winner who flashed speed all three days out in California. By comparison, Truex had just one career top 10 at Sonoma, five runs outside the top 15 in seven starts and never qualified higher than fifth. In fact, the most notorious moment for him was a wreck, getting smashed by Jeff Gordon in an incident that actually had the mild-mannered driver talking payback for several months back in 2010.
Now, there’s no need, Truex taking revenge through a trophy. Suddenly, the “wild card” picture becomes much more crowded, the five drivers mentioned – Ambrose, Montoya, Gordon, Kurt Busch, and Logano – seeing their sense of urgency increased. The first two are almost definitely out of the postseason; no way either wins on an oval and Watkins Glen in the same year. They just haven’t flashed the speed, nor have the personnel set up behind them to contend. For Kurt Busch, two wins with a single-car team is also a tough order; and Logano? He’s never won twice in a single season. For both, that’s probably what it’s going to take unless they can somehow shake their inconsistency, sneaking inside NASCAR’s crowded top 10 in points.
Gordon is the only one, by virtue of his Hall of Fame resume who could win twice and no one would bat an eyebrow. But he’s now joined on the list of “bubble” Chasers by two major players: winless Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Truex’s win, while vaulting him into the championship top 10 also assures this season’s “wild cards” will have at least one victory to their credit. That’s trouble for Keselowski and Earnhardt, who recently have just not gotten it done; they’re way too close to 11th to feel completely secure about their chances.
Kudos to Truex, for whom the win was a long time coming, a man who has every right to celebrate like a Sprint Cup champion these next few days. It’s a drought that had to end at some point.
It’s just no one thought it would be now, Sonoma’s summer shock that may lead to one of the drivers we just mentioned pointing here as the day they lost their chance at the Chase.
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