FONTANA, Calif. – Winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) last year naturally leads to Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78, Bass Pro Shops/5-Hour ENERGY Toyota) being held to a higher standard going forward. The NASCAR veteran lived up to those expectations Sunday as the polesitter led 125 of 200 laps and captured the checkered flag with little suspense at the 22nd-annual Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.
Auto Club Speedway hosted its 29th NASCAR Cup Series race – second all-time among active California racetracks – and crowned its 17th winning NASCAR Cup Series driver. Truex Jr. won his first Auto Club 400 in his 18th start at the two-mile oval, and his 16th career MENCS race in 446 starts.
Truex Jr., 37, became the first driver to win the pole position and all three stages in a MENCS race. Sunday’s Auto Club 400 accounted for Truex Jr.’s first MENCS victory and stage wins of the 2018 season.
“Getting our first California win is unbelievable,” Truex Jr. said. “I feel like we’ve been close all year long. People kept asking me, ‘When are you going to win again, and when are you going to win any stages?’ Well, here you go. We had the offseason and you never know when you’re going to lose your mojo. It’s just kind of a reassurance that what we’re doing is working.”
With the victory, Truex Jr. vaulted to the top of the MENCS points lead (216 points), nine points clear, and his team, Furniture Row Racing, also leads the MENCS owner standings by a nine-point margin.
Putting an exclamation on Sunday’s performance, Truex Jr. led the final 31 laps and won the Auto Club 400 by a whopping 11.685 seconds. His first pole position at Auto Club Speedway was his 17th career pole.
Despite never holding the lead, 2017 Auto Club 400 champion Kyle Larson (No. 42, DC Solar Chevrolet) improved his position late in the race and netted his second runner-up finish in the race (he was also second as a rookie in 2014). Though, the result snapped Larson’s four-race win streak on two-mile tracks. Larson started the race on the inside of Row 2.
“I didn’t even see Martin,” Larson said. “All in all, it was a good day. It seemed like we could always get to third or fourth and we stalled out there. Having fun but we’d like to be one spot better.”
Three-time Auto Club Speedway champ Kyle Busch (No. 18, Interstate Batteries Toyota) led for 62 laps before finishing third.
Prior to Sunday, Truex recorded a personal-best finish of fourth on Fontana’s two-mile oval in the 2017 Auto Club 400. He was close to winning last year as he was running second within the race’s last 10 laps and, after he chose not to pit during a late caution flag, he lost some position shortly after the restart.
Truex’s first Auto Club Speedway win could be considered the completion of unfinished business.
“I knew we had a really good race car,” Truex Jr. said. “We lost the lead a couple times on pit stops so that was something we had to fight through. I don’t think there was anybody better on the short or long runs, and that’s really hard to do here.”
Added Truex Jr.’s crew chief, Cole Pearn: “We just had to get the back tightened up a little bit and once we did, the speed was there.”
Striving to become the first driver to win four consecutive MENCS races since Jimmie Johnson in 2007, Bakersfield native Kevin Harvick (No. 4, Busch Beer Ford) was the subject of the primary pre-race plot surrounding the Auto Club 400.
Starting in 10th position on the grid, Harvick’s bid to keep his win streak alive came to an early close. He was sent into the wall and skidded across the track after he got slightly loose coming out of Turn 2 on Lap 38 and side-drafted with Larson, prompting the race’s first caution flag.
Larson and Harvick were running third and fourth, consecutively, for most of the race until that point. Larson re-started 20th out of the caution. Meanwhile, Harvick needed fender repair and got back into the race in 36th position, two laps down and out of contention for the duration of the race. Harvick finished 35th and lost his MENCS points lead.
“It’s my fault for coming down the race track and trying to side draft there,” Harvick said.
Added Larson: “We were racing really hard. He had the better of me in Turns 1 and 2, and I had the better of him in Turns 3 and 4. I knew that I didn’t do anything wrong. I respect Kevin a lot and I think he respects me a lot, too. Just the little bit that I was around Kevin, I still feel that he had the best car, but who knows. He didn’t get to race a whole lot.”
2015 Auto Club 400 champion Brad Keselowski (No. 2, Wurth Ford) posted his fourth straight top-10 result at Auto Club Speedway with a fourth-place finish.
Joey Logano (No. 22, Auto Club of Southern California Ford), who won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Roseanne 300 at Auto Club Speedway, placed fifth and led the race for nine laps.
William Byron (No. 24, AXALTA Chevrolet) was the Auto Club 400’s highest-finishing MENCS rookie, placing 15th.
The Auto Club 400 featured 16 lead changes among seven different leaders in the 37-car field, and five caution flags for a total of 21 laps.
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