Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway on July 14, 2018 in Sparta, Kentucky. Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
SPARTA, Ky. — The name of the race may have been the Quaker State 400, but it might as well have been named the Martin Truex Jr. 400, as Truex earned New Jersey native swept the weekend at Kentucky Speedway, becoming the first back-to-back Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner in the track’s history.
Truex kicked off the weekend qualifying on the pole Friday for Saturday night’s race. He won both stages Saturday night, leading a race-high 174 laps to earn his 19th-career Cup victory, backing up his win in 2017 at the 1.5-mile track.
“I enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when it’s going to end,” Truex said. “My team’s so badass I can’t even explain it. It’s amazing.”
Truex’s name has been included in the Big Three this season, included with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Both of them have five wins this season. Saturday night’s win makes it four for Truex.
“It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group,” Truex said, comparing it to watching guys like Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace battle when he was a kid watching NASCAR.
“To think I’m one of those guys this year, and last year too, it’s amazing for me,” he said.
The three have combined for 14 wins out of 19 this season.
“Is it good for the sport?” Truex asked. “I don’t know. I really don’t care. My job is to go win races. My job is to win championships.”
He said what people don’t realize is how hard it truly is to win a race.
“We have 70 people on our team,” he said. “I don’t know, I’m just guessing, picking a number. One of those people screws up and we’re not winning that weekend.”
Truex’s Crew Chief Cole Pearn said with rule changes this season, the Furniture Row team has been working to catch back up and stay in the same category as Harvick and Kyle Busch.
“I think for us, we’ve just been trying to push forward, trying to catch the guys who have been a little bit better than us,” Pearn said. “We’ve just been continuing to gain on it. The rule changes this year have forced us to work on it, find a balance we’re happy with.”
He said with NASCAR making teams more even with rule changes, they have also made teams able to stand apart, but he doesn’t see it as a problem.
“Everybody screams they want parity and we’ve got closer parity and in that fact we’ve got more disparity I guess,” he said.
After battling up front early, Ryan Blaney was able to battle to a second-place finish behind Truex.
“We made good gains all night,” Blaney said. “When we started the day off I thought we were OK. … We made the car a lot better through the night. I thought we were in a good spot on the last restart starting fourth. Martin came down on the bottom and we couldn’t quite get by him.”
Blaney said he was happy to have a strong performance to possibly get the season turned around.
“We needed a run like that after the last few weeks we had,” he said. “I think our company as a whole is making good gains.”
Blaney said with the way the team has performed throughout the year, he thinks they’re close to getting a victory.
“I think we’re on the verge of that,” he said. “It’s just a matter of keep on working hard and try to find little things here and there to put us in that category.”
Despite the positives, however, Blaney said there was still disappointment in finishing second.
“I’m bummed we didn’t win the race because we were so close to doing it.”
Brad Keselowski became one of Truex’s bigger challengers after a two-tire stop at the end of stage two and a good restart put him on the point. He held the lead for 37 laps before Truex was able to track him down and get by.
“As the race progressed, we couldn’t stay with him,” Keselowski said. “We’ve been good, not great this year. You’ve got to be great to win. This is the closest we’ve been to great on mile and a halfs.”
Keselowski said he can see the progression as the Penske cars continue to improve.
“We can see the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back, taking a step forward.”
Kurt Busch led the second-most laps after staying out in the first stage while the leaders short-pitted. A two-tire stop at the end of the first stage gave Busch the lead again, which he was able to hold for 10 laps before being passed by Truex. He would lead one more time late in the race.
“I really enjoyed the way Billy Scott called the race because our lap times were really strong on the super-long runs, and that’s why he left me out there in stage one,” Busch said. “We didn’t get points, but it put us in good position for stage two and then we were ahead of the game to make a call again. It just kept us ahead the whole night. Even though we didn’t have the fastest car, we led a lot of laps tonight and it was fun to have the Monster Energy Ford out front. We probably would have ended up seventh and we finished sixth. It was a good battle.”
Despite not leading any laps, one of the stronger cars during the race was Kyle Larson, who raced from the back of the field after missing driver intros. However, a trackbar issue late in the race cost him and Larson ended up in ninth place.
“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” said Larson, consistently the strongest Chevrolet driver this season. “I drove by the 78 and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there on the last run and it drove OK, just built being back really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”
There were four cautions in the race for a total of 22 laps, and 14 lead changes among seven drivers. The time of the race was two hours, 39 minutes and 43 seconds. Next week the Cup teams travel to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.