Martin Truex Jr. crushes the field, closes West Coast Swing with Auto Club 400 win

by Justin Nguyen

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 HamlinClint 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 BuschErik JonesClint 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.

Another cycle of green flag stops commenced on lap 88 with Larson leading the way. Truex pitted two laps later, which allowed Kyle Busch to inherit the lead as he and McMurray were the lone drivers to stay out; McMurray had attempted to pit earlier, but his loose race car was unable to hit pit road due to approaching cars and having too much momentum. The pair would pit on lap 92 to shuffle Truex back into the top spot with Larson behind.

The second race-related caution came out on lap 109 when Trevor Bayne, who was racing Newman, cut his right-front tire and hit the wall. Menard also hit the wall in an isolated incident. Truex remained the leader for the restart with seven laps left in the stage, and held off Keselowski to win his second straight stage. Behind the two were Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Jones, Logano, Johnson, Larson, Bowyer, and Byron.

Stage #3 began on lap 127 as Busch and Logano led Truex, who battled with Keselowski for position. A lap later, David Ragan hit the wall, cut a tire, and collided with the wall again to bring out the yellow flag. With the exception of Kahne and Chastain, everyone pitted, and Byron led the pitting cars as he took only two series. The restart took place on lap 132 as Kahne and Chastain quickly fell back on older tires. Byron briefly led until Busch passed him.

Busch and Truex began to fight for the lead, though the former held on to his position until the next series of stops under green began on lap 161. The two leaders elected to stay out, refusing to pit before the other as the first of the two would exit the pits with older tires; they would eventually do so on lap 163.

Since Larson, who was running third, joined them in pitting, this led to Hamlin taking the lead. Of the three, Busch was the first to leave pit road, enabling him to become the new leader when Hamlin pitted on lap 165. During his stop, however, Busch’s crewman inadvertently turned the wedge track bar in the opposite direction, loosening the car.

Credit: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

On lap 168, the wedge adjustment came back to haunt Busch as he nearly hit the wall exiting turn two, giving Truex the opportunity to pass him. Larson passed Busch for second and attempted to catch up to Truex, but the #78 proved to be too dominant as Truex built a whopping lead of over ten seconds en route to the victory. Tailing Truex, Larson, and Busch were Keselowski, Logano, Hamlin, Jones, Ryan Blaney, Johnson, and Dillon. The ten drivers were the only cars to not go a lap down.

Truex became the third driver to win at Fontana from the pole, with Johnson and Larson doing the same in 2008 and 2017, respectively.

“It just feels good to win,” Truex stated. “I don’t really worry about who else is fast. Obviously [Harvick] has been quick. They’ve got a great team, and Kevin is an awesome driver. But as we’ve seen today, we can put together a run as well.”

Harvick finished a distant thirty-fifth, which resulted in a seven-place drop in the points standings to eighth. Truex becomes the new points leader as he holds a nine-point margin over Busch.

Next week, the Cup Series contests the first short track of the year: the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Keselowski is the defending winner.

2018 Auto Club 400 results

FinishStartNumberDriverTeamManufacturerLaps (Led)Status
1178Martin Truex Jr.Furniture Row RacingToyota200 (125)Running
2342   Kyle LarsonChip Ganassi RacingChevrolet200Running
3218Kyle BuschJoe Gibbs RacingToyota200 (62)Running
4112Brad KeselowskiTeam PenskeFord200Running
5622Joey LoganoTeam PenskeFord200 (9)Running
62511Denny HamlinJoe Gibbs RacingToyota200 (1)Running
7420Erik JonesJoe Gibbs RacingToyota200Running
8812Ryan BlaneyTeam PenskeFord200Running
93348Jimmie JohnsonHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet200Running
1053Austin DillonRichard Childress RacingChevrolet200Running
112614Clint BowyerStewart-Haas RacingFord199Running
122710Aric AlmirolaStewart-Haas RacingFord199Running
132888Alex BowmanHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet199Running
14741Kurt BuschStewart-Haas RacingFord199Running
152924William ByronHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet199 (1)Running
16319Chase ElliottHendrick MotorsportsChevrolet199Running
17151Jamie McMurrayChip Ganassi RacingChevrolet199 (1)Running
181617Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Roush Fenway RacingFord199Running
191421Paul MenardWood Brothers RacingFord199Running
201943Darrell Wallace Jr.Richard Petty MotorsportsChevrolet199Running
21931Ryan NewmanRichard Childress RacingChevrolet199Running
223247A.J. AllmendingerJTG Daugherty RacingChevrolet199Running
233019Daniel SuárezJoe Gibbs RacingToyota199Running
243495Kasey KahneLeavine Family RacingChevrolet199 (1)Running
252138David RaganFront Row MotorsportsFord199Running
262234Michael McDowellFront Row MotorsportsFord199Running
271713Ty DillonGermain RacingChevrolet198Running
283772Cole WhittTriStar MotorsportsChevrolet198Running
293615Ross ChastainPremium MotorsportsChevrolet198Running
301237Chris BuescherJTG Daugherty RacingChevrolet197Running
311832Matt DiBenedettoGo Fas RacingFord196Running
322023Gray GauldingBK RacingToyota194Running
333551   Timmy HillRick Ware RacingChevrolet193Running
342455Reed SorensonPremium MotorsportsChevrolet193Running
35104Kevin HarvickStewart-Haas RacingFord191Running
36230Jeffrey EarnhardtStarCom RacingChevrolet189Running
37136Trevor BayneRoush Fenway RacingFord108Crash

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