SONOMA, Calif. – Using a contrarian strategy that included bluffing Kevin Harvick onto pit road earlier than planned in the final stage of Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350, Martin Truex Jr. pulled off a convincing victory in the 16th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season.
On Lap 73, during the final stage of the race, Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, ordered the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota to pit road. On the spur of the moment, Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, opted to cover Truex’s move and called the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to the pits from the lead.
But Pearn, by design, called off the pit stop at the last second, and Truex picked up the lead, which he surrendered on Lap 81 when he pitted for the only time during the final stage. Harvick and teammate Clint Bowyer returned to pit road on Lap 92 of 110, and when that happened, Truex held a 23.826-second lead over Chase Elliott in second.
All Truex had to do the rest of the way was avoid a caution in the final 18 laps – a situation that was realized as the final stage ran green from a Lap 55 restart to the finish.
“All you’re doing is begging, hoping the caution doesn’t come out,” Truex Jr. said of the end of the race. “Then you’d have to pit, and you don’t know what could happen. It messes the field up. Just hoping for no cautions and don’t make any mistakes and hope the engine stays together.”
In winning for the third time this season, Truex led 62 laps, including the last 20 after he passed Harvick to retake the lead on Lap 91. The victory was Truex’s second at Sonoma and the 18th of his career. With his first win coming in 2013, Truex’s triumph also broke a streak of nine straight different winners at the 1.99-mile road course.
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Pearn said the single stop in the final stage was the plan all along, even if Harvick’s car hadn’t been snookered into the pits.
“We knew we were going to do one stop – that was kind of our plan,” Pearn acknowledged. “We just really needed them to pit earlier for it to work out. It was a bit of a gamble, but obviously, it paid off. It worked out great. It’s tough. Everybody is so good in this (series) that sometimes you have to do something different to pull one out.”
Harvick was philosophical about the call that in all probability cost him the race.
“We all make mistakes,” Harvick said. “We all do things split-second that might be right after it all happens. But these guys do a great job. Everyone on our Mobil1 Ford has done a great job for the last five years.
“We had a shot today. The call was one thing, but I think I was too hard on the car the first couple of stages. The brake pedal was long after qualifying and never really came around during the race. It progressively got worse, and I kept losing drive about Lap 20 off of (Turn) 3 and was getting tight off of 4. I had a lot of problems I needed to work on, but all of our guys do a great job.”
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Driving conservatively with a massive lead over the final 10 laps, Truex crossed the finish line 10.513 seconds ahead of Harvick, who passed Elliott for the second spot on Lap 102. Two laps later, Bowyer got by Elliott to finish third.
Posting his first career top-five result on a road course, Elliott held fourth, one spot ahead of charging Kyle Busch, who retained the series lead by 72 points over Harvick. Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin completed the top 10.