Martin Truex Jr. dominated the 2017 season. Fast forward to March 2018 and the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, and he continues to prove why he is the reigning series champion. The New Jersey native led a race-high 125 of 200 laps as he won his sixteenth Cup Series race in convincing fashion.
Truex started the weekend on a strong note as he won the pole, but thirteen other drivers – Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Daniel Suárez, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Timmy Hill, and Ross Chastain – saw their Friday qualifying session feature a more sour tone as they were unable to set a lap time due to being stuck in inspection.
To alleviate the situation, NASCAR permitted the drivers to change their tires for Sunday’s race and the other twenty-four to buy a new set; under normal conditions, NASCAR required all teams to start the race on the same tires used in qualifying, but as Fontana is notorious for its tire wear, those with the older tires would be placed at a disadvantage. Bowman and Gray Gaulding (engine), Michael McDowell (rear gear), and Suárez (backup car) were ordered to the back of the field.
Starting alongside Truex on the front row was Kyle Busch, who opened the race on the inside line. Busch ducked to the outside at the green flag before trying a line on the inside, eventually settling behind the #78. At the back of the field, Bowman – who started thirty-fourth – began his march through the field, and by lap five, was nineteenth. Busch took the lead on lap 11, while Kevin Harvick, who started tenth and was seeking to win his fourth consecutive race, moved into fifth five laps later.
Green flag pit stops began on lap 27 as the Richard Childress Racing pair of Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon hit pit road. Others followed a lap later, including Harvick and Truex. Busch and Kyle Larson pitted on lap 29, which cycled Larson’s team-mate Jamie McMurray into the lead until he did the same a lap later. Upon completing the cycle, Busch was back in first.
On lap 38, Harvick’s hopes of continuing his winning streak evaporated when he was racing Larson off turn two. Earlier during their battle, Larson had gotten Harvick loose, and the 2014 champion sought to side draft the #42 as retaliation. Instead, Harvick bumped into Larson, turned into the outside wall, and slid off the track to bring out the caution. Repairs to their cars dropped Larson to twentieth and Harvick to thirty-sixth, the latter two laps down.
“I don’t know that that [Larson’s] fault, I think that’s my fault for coming down the race track right there and trying to side-draft, and then as we touch right there, it just came back up the race track,” Harvick stated. “Just trying to get a little too much right there.”
“Disappointed in myself for a bone head move 2 years in a row. Proud of my team for another fast car and we move on,” he tweeted after the race.
The restart took place on lap 41 as Truex led Busch. Larson entered the top ten with ten laps remaining in the stage, turning it into a sixth-place finish as Truex won his twentieth Cup stage and first of the 2018 season. Johnson, who started thirty-third and was enduring a poor start to the year, scored his first stage points of the year as he finished fifth. Busch, Logano, Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Larson, Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, and Hamlin rounded out the top ten.
Joey Logano won the race off pit road to become the leader for the start of the second stage on lap 67. Truex restarted alongside him and passed him for first after five laps.