LONG POND, Pa. – Most of the talk entering Sunday’s Pocono 400, and for the bulk of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season so far, centered around how Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch had dominated with nine wins in the first 13 races.
That discussion seemed to leave Martin Truex Jr., last year’s series champion, as somewhat of a forgotten man. All weekend long, the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota maintained a steady confidence that his team was “right there” despite not having the treasure trove of playoff points he had built up last year. He cited how at this time last year he only had two wins (he went on to win eight times in 2017), while this year he came into Pocono with just one win.
The 37-year-old New Jersey native scored another win Sunday at Pocono Raceway, one of his handful of home tracks. In the process, he served notice that the 2018 championship picture is far from a two-car conclusion between Harvick and Busch.
“It’s always fun to win,” Truex said. “But especially when you beat the best guys out there. These two guys (Busch and Harvick) were so fast today. Honestly, we were all really equal. It was a matter of who could get out front. The 4 and I stayed on tires. We felt like in practice we were really fast on scuffs. Cole (Pearn, his crew chief) made a good call to stay out and once I got in clean air, this thing was a rocket ship.”
Despite a string of incidents and bad luck early in the spring, Truex has nine top fives on the season – tied for second-most in the series. And unlike last year, when it seemed like everything that could go right for the No. 78 team did, nagging issues such as lost spots on pit road and blown tires have happened, but the team has not lost its way as Sunday proved.
“We’ve had more battles this year,” Truex said. “We’ve had more adversity. Last year I felt like things just ‑ it was almost like we couldn’t do anything wrong. This year we’ve had to really work a lot harder for it, but I feel like we’re still right there.”
Through the season’s first 14 races, the trio of Truex, Harvick and Busch have combined for 11 wins and 2,105 laps led. Together, the trio has taken top-five spots together in four races this season and have a combined 28 top fives on the season. They rank first through third in playoff points gathered thus far and all three were part of last year’s Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
So is it fair to say the three of them are in a league of their own after they comprised 75 percent of the top four with Kyle Larson taking the runner-up spot?
“I think three out of the four have definitely been the best,” Larson said of Harvick, Busch and Truex. “I mean, I’m the only one that doesn’t have a win in the front four. … I think that three of those guys are definitely head over heels better than the rest of us.”
Sunday’s race saw the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford of Harvick, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Busch and the No. 78 of Truex all take turns at the front with Harvick leading a race-high 89 laps. Truex overcame a slow pit stop on the left rear after the end of Stage 1. Before that, he ran down Harvick for the lead and playoff point with seven laps to go to take the stage win.
Truex also capitalized on staying out under a Lap 140 caution and made the older tires hold up over the final 21 laps and three cautions. The decision to stay out did not work out as well for Harvick, who fell to fourth at the end. Busch took four tires for fresh rubber, restarting eighth and surged to a third-place finish.
“Every single weekend this year, I’ve felt like we can show up and win,” Truex said. “In this sport, as tough as it is and as competitive as it is, that’s really what you look for. Any time you’re in a situation like that, I think you’re in a good place.”
As the crew chief of the No. 78 team, Pearn is confident that the team is continuing to make strides week to week as the season progresses.
“Ultimately, you can only control your own destiny, so I think it’s just a matter of continuing to work on the areas that we know we need to improve,” Pearn said. “It’s a matter of staying after it, and if you manage your own inputs, the output is going to be the best that you can hope for.
“Obviously those guys, the 4 and the 18, have done an unbelievable job all year, and we’ve been close for sure, and today was a great step in the right direction and let us know that we were kind of working the right way.”