The best summation of Martin Truex Jr.’s performance came from race winner Brad Keselowski.
“Martin had the best car all night – if he didn’t have that [pit road penalty] trouble at the end he probably would have won this race,” said Keselowski, who saved just enough fuel to win Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
As he has been throughout the season on the 1.5-mile ovals, Truex was once again dominant, but the penalty for passing the leader on pit road coupled with a fuel mileage gamble left him with a 10th-place finish.
Though Truex’s No. 78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Toyota led 46 laps and was getting stronger as the race wore on, his most impressive stretch came after he was called for the penalty.
When Truex came off pit road following a caution on lap 196 of 267 he was in the lead. But it was at that point that NASCAR cited him for the penalty, forcing him to come down pit road again, which relegated him from first to 22nd.
“I was so mad about being called for the penalty that I just let it rip,” said Truex. “It’s all you do in instances like that is keep your head down and dig. We went all the way to third place from the back. That was cool, all in all we still finished 10th. It’s just one of those deals. I’m not sure why we got penalized.”
A determined Truex did indeed turn up the wick and put on a driving performance that NBC Sports commentator Kyle Petty said was equal to his dominating win at Charlotte when he led 392 of 400 laps.
As soon as the green flag dropped to restart the race, Truex started to pick off positions on the tricky repaved track, reaching third place by Lap 236.
Without any additional cautions, fuel mileage became an issue and Truex was called to pit road on Lap 258 for a splash of fuel.
“We were a few laps short and burned a lot of fuel getting back up there and the thought process was that we needed to get some fuel,” said Truex.
While some teams barely made it on fuel, others did not. Keselowski ran out of fuel at the finish line and his car had to be pushed to Victory Lane.
“You roll the dice and hope for the best,” said Truex. “Had the race gone into overtime, we would have been right there with a great shot at winning. But we’ll take a top 10 and move on.”
Truex added, “We’ve been dominant at the five mile-and-a-half races this year and came away with only one win. We need to button that up.”
The good news for Truex is that five of the 10 Chase races are at mile-and-a-half venues.
By leading 46 laps, Truex has now led 785 laps at the five 1.5-mile tracks. He remains the series’ lap leader at 866.
In the Sprint Cup driver point standings he ranks seventh, and is eighth in Chase points. Saturday’s race marked the halfway mark of the 36-race schedule. There are eight races remaining before the start of the 10-race Chase playoffs.
Following Keselowski to the checkered flag in order were: Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Truex.
The race had 16 lead changes among nine drivers and there were 11 cautions for 53 laps.
The next Sprint Cup Series race is Sunday July 17 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.