Martin Truex Jr. combined speed and smarts to win the I Love New York 355 Sunday at Watkins Glen International, his series-best fourth Monster Cup Energy Series victory of the season.
Truex had one of the strongest cars all afternoon, leading a race-high 24 laps and finishing second in the first and second stages. But while the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota was fast, an unexpected 36-lap stretch of green flag racing forced drivers and teams to adjust their strategy.
Instead of pitting like many others, Truex stayed on the track and saved fuel. Crew chief Cole Pearn even told Truex to relinquish the lead and slow his pace, confident that they would be able to make it to the finish while those ahead of him would need to stop. Listening to Pearn’s order, Truex gave way to Brad Keselowski with 13 laps remaining and went into fuel-conservation mode.
Truex moved back into the lead after Keselowski and Ryan Blaney each pitted with less than four laps remaining. He then held off a charging Matt Kenseth on the final lap by 0.414 seconds.
"It's excruciating to go that slow here and try to save that much fuel," Truex said. "The toughest part, really, was just watching (Keselowski) pass and go on, and then watching (Blaney) pass and go on. It's like, 'All right, if they don't run out of gas, we're going to look really dumb.' Fortunately, it worked out for us."
The win was special who as a child would go to the New York track and watch his father race. It was his first victory in 12 career starts at Watkins Glen.
“It means a lot to be in victory lane here at this racetrack,” Truex said. “I’ve been coming here a long time and feel like we’ve been close and had a few slip away from us, but really excited.”
Rookie Daniel Suarez finished a career-best third, followed by Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer. Kurt Busch, pole-sitter Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, AJ Allmendinger, and rookie Erik Jones completed the top 10.
Kenseth holds a 28-point advantage over Bowyer for the final transfer spot into the 16-driver playoff field with four regular season races remaining.
A victory Sunday would’ve secured Kenseth, who’s winless on the year, a playoff berth in what may be his final season. Joe Gibbs Racing is replacing the 45-year-old with Jones next season and Kenseth has said he has nothing lined up for 2018.
“At the beginning of the year we ran so‑so and just had so many (did not finishes), so many problems and no stage points, just got buried in the points,” Kenseth said. “So we've been able to make a little comeback in the points, which is nice.
“But lately we've been running a lot better, and I feel like we keep running like this, hopefully we can get a win the next few weeks.”
In the early going Kyle Busch appeared set to make it two wins in a row following his first victory of the season a week ago at Pocono Raceway. Starting on the pole, he led the opening 21 laps and built up a multi-second lead over second-place Truex.
But Busch’s day turned when he had to make an extra pit stop for a loose wheel, miring him in traffic. As he attempted to charge from the back he had a collision with Brad Keselowski, which sent both spinning off the course.
Although he sustained minimal damage, Busch couldn’t recoup the lost track position. He finished seventh.