Time after time, caution flags brought his rivals closer to Martin Truex Jr. on the Pocono Raceway.
Time after time, Truex pulled away Sunday afternoon, winning the Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400 and ending a 69-race drought without a victory.
“All his restarts, he just was 10 out of 10 perfect,” said his crew chief, Cole Pearn. “That really made the difference.”
Truex has dealt with more than his share of disappointment since his last win, in Sonoma nearly two years ago and including some tough times recently. In each of the previous three Sprint Cup races, he led the most laps but left the track frustrated.
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But the 34-year-old driver and his team continued to push through and endure.
“It would be easy the last three weeks to get down and hang your head and make excuses, but they weren’t,” Truex said. “They knew we were going to get this win.”
The Mayetta, N.J., native led 97 laps of the 160-lap race in winning his third career Sprint Cup race, refusing to back off on a day when the first 120 miles were run under a green flag but there were eight yellow and a total of 31 caution laps the rest of the way.
Despite a late charge, Kevin Harvick was unable to catch Truex, settling for his eighth second-place finish of the year. Harvick, driving the No. 4 Budweiser car, leads the Sprint Cup standings but is still winless in 29 career starts at Pocono.
The winningest racer at Pocono Raceway, Jeff Gordon, sported “Penn State” on his No. 24 car and on his fire suit under an educational partnership between the university and his sponsor — Axalta Coating Systems, which also sponsored the race.
The Penn State connection didn’t result in a great day for Gordon, however.
After starting fourth, he fell off the pace 55 laps in, getting pushed high on the race’s first restart and falling from sixth out of the top 10. In his second-to-last run at Pocono, Gordon — who plans to retire at the end of the season — used another caution to work himself up to the front of the pack for a single lap.
But a quick yellow flag at lap 94 forced Gordon to pit. He was unable to make his way back to the leaders, finishing 14th on the day.
Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, meanwhile, both overcame obstacles to pick up top-five finishes.
Johnson blew out a tire on lap 87, but was able to stick on the lead lap and push his way to the top of the field. Later in the race, Johnson made contact with the wall, but dealt with the damage and avoided a pit stop. Despite not leading a single lap, Johnson finished third, giving him seven top-three finishes in his last eight races.
“We overcame a lot. A flat tire and a damaged car and we still got to third,” he said. “It was a scrappy day, but we finished third.”
A pit road speeding penalty sent Logano to the back of the field to start the race. He tore through the back of the pack, but was penalized again for speeding during his first pit stop.
Once again, he worked his way up and finished in fourth place.
“This was one of those blue-collar days, the guys did a good job making my car faster and got to where we were a top-five car at the end,” Logano said.
The pole sitter, Kurt Busch, lost the lead on the first lap and took fifth.
The state of the track was a big talking point leading up to the race — especially a bump over the tunnel in turn two of Pocono’s “Tricky Triangle.” But, in the end, it wasn’t a major issue for most drivers.
“I think it got everybody’s attention, but I don’t mind the bumps and the challenges that come with all that stuff,” Johnson said.
Harvick still holds a 39-point edge on Truex in the series standings, but the win should put Truex in his third career Chase for the Sprint Cup late in the season.
“As long as they don’t kick me out before now and then,” Truex said, “I’ll be in it.”