Martin Truex Jr. survived an early brush with the outside wall and a frenetic restart with five laps left to win Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
On a race that featured 16 cautions — most since the record 22 in 2005 — Truex made a four-wide pass to the inside coming off Turn 2 on Lap 396 of 400 at the 1.5-mile track, and beat runner-up Joey Logano to the finish line by .330 seconds.
The victory was Truex’s third of the season, matching Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski for most in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series so far. It was his third win at Charlotte and the 22nd of his career, but it was hardly the sort of dominating performance that saw Truex lead a record 392 laps in 2016.
Quite the contrary. After charging to a lead of nearly three seconds in the first stage of the race, Truex blew a right front tire and slammed the Turn 4 wall hard enough to trigger the third caution of the evening. After repairs, Truex restarted 32nd on Lap 79, but by the end of Stage 1 on lap 100, he had rallied to finish ninth, and he remained in the mix the rest of the night.
And when David Ragan stayed out on old tires, and Ryan Newman made a two-tire stop before the final restart on Lap 396, Truex cleared those two drivers and Logano down the backstretch in the move that won the race and event in which each driver honored a fallen soldier in observance of Memorial Day.
“That was just incredible — what a race!” Truex said after putting on a celebratory smoke show on the front stretch. “This is for everybody who gave their life so we could be here doing this tonight.
“What a hell of a team. We never gave up on it. I thought we were done. We blew a tire and hit the wall. We never gave up on it. Just kept fighting, just kept fighting. What a race there at the end. That was pretty wild.”
“Wild” doesn’t adequately describe the decisive restart. Kyle Busch split the Fords of Ragan and Newman in Turn 2, choosing to go three-wide rather than pushing Ragan clear in the top lane. Truex then powered his No. 19 Toyota to the inside off Turn 2 and had the lead by the time the cars rolled through Turns 3 and 4.
But when Truex sped through Turn 4 and approached the tri-oval, Logano was right on his bumper, pushing hard. It wasn’t until the cars reached Turn 1 on Lap 397 that Truex pulled away.
“I was thinking I was going wherever there was a hole, because I wasn’t lifting,” Truex said of his winning move. “That’s kind of the way it works there. It seemed like the second half of the race, for sure, the bottom was really where you wanted to be. I had a hole in the bottom to get into [Turn] 3, and I knew that was my only shot. Just barely cleared the 22 (Logano) off [Turn] 4 sideways. He was on my bumper and had me sideways, and I hung onto it and luckily finished it from there.”
Logano overcame early handling issues to finish second but wasn’t a factor until late in the race.
“The 38 (Ragan) ran really high, and I thought he was going to run the middle, and I kind of misjudged it,” Logano said of the last restart. “That’s what just killed a little bit of momentum where Martin was just able to have enough momentum to clear me off that corner.
“At that point I shoved him ahead to try to make the pass to the outside, but he defended it well.
“The good thing is we kept fighting and got something out of the day.”
Kyle Busch ran third, followed by Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Chris Buescher, who rallied from hard contact with the Turn 4 wall on Lap 127 and charged from 12th to sixth after the final restart.
Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, pole winner William Byron and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10 in an action-filled race that featured 30 lead changes among 11 drivers.
Though Truex won NASCAR’s only 600-mile race for the second time, the significance of the event was undiminished.
“This is just a special race,” Truex said. “The longest race of the year. So much history. What this weekend means for all the soldiers and all those that have given the ultimate sacrifice so we can even be here … The Null family that’s on my car — Chief Petty Officer [Nicholas] Null.
“I met his family this weekend and they were so appreciative of NASCAR and teams and everybody for doing this. I can’t wait to see them here. They said we were going to win, and now we get to have a cold beer and celebrate. Just appreciate everybody on this weekend. It’s definitely a special one. Kudos to NASCAR and all the teams for putting it all together.”