Martin Truex Jr. finished eighth with what he called an “awesome race car” in Fontana on Sunday.
But, after leading 125 of the 200 laps to win last year’s Auto Club 400, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver had no shot at repeating this year as his Camry was damaged late in Stage 1 — hit in the right rear by Kyle Larson as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got out of shape in front of the field on older tires.
Truex needed multiple pit stops for repairs and scored no points in the first or second stage. He was nearly put behind completely when the caution flew in the middle of green flag pit stops with less than 40 laps to go.
“We had an awesome race car,” said Truex afterward. “Drove to the front, then got in a bad spot on the restart when a couple guys stayed out for God knows what reason — the 17 (Stenhouse) was on old tires; the 14 (Clint Bowyer) was blowing up, and we were just in the wrong lane. We were going to have a shot to win this thing had that not happened.
“We fought hard all day, we never gave up on it, and we finished eighth with a car that probably shouldn’t have finished eighth. Proud of the [team], but … we just can’t catch a break. Kept fighting back all day. First the damage and then getting caught in the pits when the caution came out and had to take the wave around. Just fought hard all day long and came home with a decent finish.”
Truex started 27th but had been making steady ground on the front of the field. Not being able to see the rear of his Toyota, he didn’t know how severe the damage was; only that crew chief Cole Pearn said it was “pretty bad.” The quarter panel was bashed in just enough that was “detrimental” to the handling, and Truex said he was “completely sideways” for most of the day.
Asked how he fights frustration like that, Truex said, “Just chew on the steering wheel and do all you can, try to get everything you can.
“We were pretty sideways all day, and it was fun and it was frustrating all at the same time. Just glad we had a decent day out of it. We didn’t need to have a terrible day obviously.
“Just a shame. I know we could have had something for them, but that’s the way it goes and congrats to the 18 (Kyle Busch) guys. They have it rolling right now for sure.”