The word of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been dominance. Kevin Harvick dominated the start of the season followed by the domination of Kyle Busch at the midway point but one name has been consistently either in the win column or inside the top five. Now, it’s defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. jumping on board after a race to remember for him at Kentucky Speedway.
Truex made a statement Saturday night (July 14) as he swept the Quaker State 400 en route to his 19th career MENCS victory. It’s his third win in the last six races as the No. 78 team has surged back into title contention. He led 174 laps and was rarely passed on track, maneuvering around different pit strategies to clear the field with ease.
It’s the first victory for Truex, last year’s 1.5-mile king on a similar type of track this year. His fourth win of the season leaves him one behind Harvick and Busch for the series lead.
“It feels good,” he said after reaching Victory Lane. “You never know how these races are going to play out. You never know what is going to happen and we had such a strong Toyota tonight. They weren’t going to beat us.”
Ryan Blaney was within at least two seconds of Truex on the 1.5-mile oval down the stretch but could never get to the No. 78 to have a chance. Blaney brought the No. 12 DEX Imaging Ford Fusion home in second, his first top-five finish since Texas in April.
Blaney’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski ran third while Kyle Busch and Harvick rounded out the top five.
“The No. 78, he kind of dominated the night,” Blaney said afterwards. “They had a really great race car and they did a good job. They’ve done that all year.”
The night started off with Truex and Daytona winner Erik Jones on the front row. But Jones fell back almost immediately, turning stage one into the Truex/Keselowski show. The No. 2 Ford driver was keeping Truex in his sights but during green-flag stops, Keselowski was too fast exiting. A misjudged timing line cost him an opportunity to win.
“We were just racing the No. 18 off pit road and tried to get a little bit too much,” he said. “I kind of dug a hole early in the race.”
With Keselowski out of the picture, Truex and Busch battled while other drivers, including Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson stayed out. For a brief time, Harvick clawed up to Truex but no one could touch the No. 78.
Once pit stops cycled through, Truex ran away with the victory in stage one. It was his fourth stage win of 2018 and his first since stage one in June at Pocono.
Stage one results – 78, 4, 18, 12, 21, 14, 19, 42, 10, 9
For stage two, Kurt Busch won the race off pit road by only taking two tires, as did Alex Bowman, who came out third among those who stopped. Joey Logano stayed out altogether and led the field to green.
The no-pit call by Logano wasn’t a terrible one; he only fell to third once the field came back around. Kurt Busch used those two tires to shoot out to a good half-second lead over Truex, who charged to second. But the No. 78 car began running down Busch with those fresher tires and ultimately took the lead on lap 98.
Shortly thereafter, Bowman blew a right-front tire entering Turn 3. The No. 88 car would go behind the wall, ending his night and tightening the MENCS playoff picture.
Truex would come down pit road in first and leave that way after he took two tires, the call of many inside the top 10. From there, Truex would lead the field to green alongside Kyle Busch and cruise to victory through the end of the stage. It was his fifth straight stage win at Kentucky.
Stage two results – 78, 18, 12, 4, 42, 14, 41, 22, 20, 21
A four-tire call for the No. 78 would put him second behind Keselowski entering the final stage. The No. 2 Ford took only two tires, a call that worked pretty well for Kurt Busch in the beginning laps of stage two.
The two-tire call for Keselowski would push him ahead of the No. 78 much like what happened with Kurt Busch. With almost a second lead over Truex, Keselowski scooted away. Kyle Larson, who missed driver intros and was forced to start from the rear, would even briefly pass Truex for second.
But Truex charged back after Larson’s track bar began going down on its own. The only competitive Chevrolet, Larson’s No. 42 tumbled back through the field and he had to fight simply to finish in ninth.
“It was down five and a half inches on my dash,” he explained. “They couldn’t move it under the pit stops and they had to crutch it with the wedge so I’m not sure what causes that, but it happened. t’s frustrating because I feel like I had a car capable of competing with them. I would have loved to have had a shot.”
With Larson out of the picture, Truex caught the No. 2. It would take some lapped traffic and Keselowski getting loose but the No. 78 retook the lead on lap 201.
Five laps later, JJ Yeley smacked the outside wall hard in the No. 23 BK Racing car to bring out the race’s final caution. Truex would lead them down pit road and take four tires, but again, he came out second to a two-tire stop as Kurt Busch gambled one last time.
Busch would lead the field to green with 53 laps remaining. Much like earlier in the race, Busch would stay up front with a push from Team Penske’s Blaney and Keselowski. Like before, he briefly pulled away only for Truex to reel him back in.
At 10 p.m. ET, the sprinklers were set off, watering the grass … while the race was continuing. A good little puddle formed quickly across from the fourth pit stall. Still, NASCAR wouldn’t throw the caution as all water remained off the racing surface.
— Ryan Ellis (@ryanellisracing) July 15, 2018
A long green-flag run allowed Truex to naturally close the gap. With 44 laps remaining, he would take the lead from Busch and Blaney quickly followed suit. The margin between them would remain almost a second apart with Blaney keeping his eye on the leader.
But the No. 12 car could never fully close in. Instead, it was Truex capping off a second straight dominant Kentucky performance. He earned no top-five finishes in his first six starts at the track but has now scored two wins with over 300 laps led the past two seasons.
“We just keep our heads down and don’t get too excited,” he stated of the No. 78 team’s continued success. “We keep working on the race car, try to stay calm and not get ahead of ourselves. We had to make a lot of adjustments tonight on the car and had to battle back a few times after getting passed for the lead.
“It’s good to get this one under the hat and keep working for the playoffs.”
Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer have now combined for 16 wins in 19 races. They’ve captured every victory this season outside of restrictor plate superspeedways Daytona and Talladega.
Kurt Busch held on for sixth Saturday night, followed by Jones. Aric Almirola, who earned his career-best Kentucky finish, Larson and Logano rounded out the top 10.