In the grand scheme of things, it did not matter that Martin Truex Jr. did not win Sunday night’s Bojangles Southern 500. Nor did it matter that with two laps to go, he blew his right front tire and lost the lead to eventual winner Denny Hamlin. It even did not matter that Truex Jr. failed to defend Darlington, where he won this same race last season.
None of that mattered, and the reason is simple. Even in defeat, Truex Jr. proved that his No. 78 car is still among the fastest in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and that he should still be considered one of only a handful of favorites to win the championship two months from now.
“It’s definitely a bittersweet night for us,” Truex Jr. said after the race. “I got caught up driving my guts out at the end there, trying to hang on.”
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It didn’t take Truex Jr., who leads the Cups Series with four wins (in Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and Watkins Glen), long to show the dominance he has all season – in fact, it took him exactly 100 laps.
For most of the first stage, the New Jersey native hung around the front of the pack, always within striking distance of then-leaders Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick. Then, in the final lap of the first stage, he surged underneath Larson at the last possible instant and edged Larson for the stage’s bonus point by half a car length.
The second stage was more of the same. Larson led for about half the time, but when the caution came out in the 198th lap, of course Truex Jr. was in the lead. The point he won for taking that stage clinched the regular season points championship, which gives him an extra 15 points going into the playoffs.
“To lock up the regular season points is a huge accomplishment for us,” Truex Jr. said.
Those points should give Truex Jr. some added peace of mind in the playoffs, especially after his tremendous 2016 season ended with an underwhelming exit in the second round.
He had a chance late to take home even more points, as he led up until the last three laps. At that point, his fuel – which he opted to stretch beyond the 60 laps typical for the end of races at Darlington – finally ran out, his deteriorating tires made the car difficult to drive and his right front tire blew out.
And even considering all that, he still finished eight.
“The plan was to try (to outlast them),” Truex Jr. said. “With two to go, I’d seen him coming, but catching someone and passing them is a whole different deal here ... I was really holding my own there.
“Sometimes it’s just not your night, you know? Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
Perhaps not, but it has been his year – and with the way he looked Sunday, he’ll have plenty more chances to prove that.