Winning race for 2nd place at 600 leaves Martin Truex Jr. frustrated ... again

Crew members work on driver Martin Truex Jr.'s car during a Coca-Cola 600 pit stop. He won the race for second but had nothing for winner Kyle Busch.
Crew members work on driver Martin Truex Jr.'s car during a Coca-Cola 600 pit stop. He won the race for second but had nothing for winner Kyle Busch. AP Photo

Two summers ago, in the same infield media-center room, Martin Truex Jr. sat down as a no-surprise-here winner. But Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he found himself on the opposite side.

In 2016, Truex won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading a track-record 392 of 400 laps.

Kyle Busch didn’t quite hit that number — he won every stage and led 377 laps, the second most in CMS history — en route to his 47th win on the Cup Series.

Truex, however, was the main victim of that consistency at the spot above him. He started 15th, made his way to fourth after the first stage and got all the way to second after the next. He finished the third stage in ninth but continued to push through the final 100 laps.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Busch wins the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, May 27, 2018 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He had been so close two weekends ago at Kansas, where he led for 13 laps and finished second to Kevin Harvick. And Concord has been good to Truex and his No. 78 Toyota — he entered Sunday’s 600 with nine top-10 finishes in 25 career races at CMS.

But that didn’t matter on this humid night — one that had Truex wiping sweat from his brow and running his hands through his thick brown hair before speaking about his second straight second-place finish in a points race.

“It was one of those nights where we just fought until the end and felt like we had a second‑place car to Kyle,” he said. “I felt like that last run we were catching him a bit, but he was probably just managing his lead and taking care of his tires.”

Two pit penalties hurt Truex: a speeding penalty on Lap 204 and one for an uncontrolled tire on Lap 229. He called the second “just one of those freak things.”

“Just one of those nights, but they cleaned it up well and did a good job after that,” Truex said of his crew. “That's all you can ask for. People make mistakes.”

Those were the mistakes that pushed Truex down to ninth after 300 laps. But after 65 more, he had stolen second from Brad Keselowski. But while he cut into Busch’s lead, who had the best car was never in question.

“I think we were definitely catching him,” Truex said. “Seemed like every time we'd pit under green, we were faster for 20 laps. I don't know if that's him taking care of his tires because he had such a big lead, because at the end of the long runs, he was faster.”

In context, this second-place finish won't hurt in the standings. Truex's victory at California locks him into the playoffs, and he has eight top-five finishes. After Sunday night, he sits in fifth place, 143 points behind Busch.

Still, ending two straight races right behind the winner hurts. And it showed on Truex’s face — some grimaces, a few internal sighs. Third-place finisher Denny Hamlin felt his pain. To lose in such fashion isn’t easy.

“They just had, from what I could see, an exceptional car that was a little better than us,” Hamlin said of Busch's team. “I don't think that we could have done anything — maybe Martin could have.”

No, Truex wasn't able to do anything, either. A night like this from Busch, who has now won a points race at every active track, doesn’t leave much wiggle room.

And on a night where he came up short again — and was also penalized for an unsecure lug nut in post-race inspections — frustration was apparent.

“At the end of the day, we ran second,” Truex said. “(Busch) kicked everybody's tail. That’s just the way it goes. That’s how it is.”

Chapel Fowler: 704-358-5612; @chapelfowler