By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The front running Martin Truex, Jr. fans come to know of returned in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, winning the first two stages and scored a race-high 54 points, but wound up third for his first top-five all season.
Truex led six times for 59 of 325 laps to get his first two playoff points and the first couple for crew chief James Small.
Over the radio, the No. 19 Auto Owners Insurance Toyota Camry squad were satisfied of getting stage wins, extending Truex’s all-time stage wins to 40.
“Stage winner, MTJ, c’mon,” said Truex’s spotter Clayton Hughes.
“About time,” Truex responded following winning the opening stage.
Following the second stage victory, Truex had a quick reacting response:
“Oh yeah,” said Truex.
“Fuck yeah, man. Good job! Nice restart there,” Small replied.
Those stage wins ended in sprints due to late stage cautions caused both Front Row Motorsports drivers John Hunter Nemechek (Stage 1) and Michael McDowell (Stage 2), who spun at Turn 4.
Once scoring those stage wins, Atlanta also marked the 10th time Truex won both and became the first driver to accomplish this feat at least once per season since the formation of stage racing back in 2017.
All positive joy went away during the final stage as Kevin Harvick took control for the rest of the afternoon while Truex struggled to match his race pace. At one point, he vented his frustrations on a lapped car like last year with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. that cost him a shot at an Atlanta victory.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end-all-be-all talk as Truex’s Camry was too tight and couldn’t properly adjust the car. Thus, the trend of not being able to give Small his first win on top of the pit box after showing race-winning speed continued.
“The last two or three runs there, we just got too tight. Not sure what happened,” said Truex. “The car was really good. The guys did a great job. Auto Owners Camry was fast all day. Got our first two stage wins of the year, which was huge. We just can’t seem to get over the hump at the finishes.”
The struggle of getting over the hump became apparent with five laps remaining when fellow Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch took second away as Truex’s front tires were smoked.
“With about 25 (laps) to go, I was clicking off some good lap times, but I knew I was pushing it too hard on the right front tire and with about 10 to go, it said, ‘oh hell no more.’ Just ran out of tires at the end and lost second to Kyle,” Truex on the closing laps.
“I figured at that point, I could see the 4 (Harvick) and was just going to give it all I had and see if there was any opportunity, but he was just too good. Just got too tight at the end. I don’t know why, but we’ll go back and look at it. Hell of a job by everybody and a good, solid day.”
Despite a rather disappointing final stage, Truex leaving Atlanta with a top-five was encouraging as he moved up to fifth in the regular season standings after 10 races.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” said Truex. “We’ve had a real strong season as far as being competitive. Getting tons of stage points, but we’ve been lacking on our finishes a little bit. It felt good to get that top-five out of the way. I wished we could’ve won.”
Going forward, Truex knows the No. 19 team must do a better job on adjusting to the track temperatures, but remained confident they’ll get the ball rolling and get his 27th career win in no time.
“I felt like James is doing a great job and the whole team has really been doing a nice job,” said Truex. “Especially, as things have changed with the smaller amount of guys at the track, no practice and all those things. We’ll keep working hard on it.”
The next race of the Cup calendar will be Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway for the running of the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 airing live at 7:00 pm EST on FS1.
Truex won the most recent race last October and while the circuit has been good to him, nothing is guaranteed. That’s because the Cup cars will run the 750 horsepower aero package that’s already been raced at Phoenix and Bristol with positive receptions.
“Martinsville has been a good track to us the past few seasons. Being the defending winner feels great, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything,” Truex’s thoughts on the weeknight race. “Different rules package, lower downforce this time around. We’ll have to hopefully go there and have something that’ll work good off the trailer because there’s no practice.
“Will see how it goes, but I’m excited about it and looking forward to a night race at Martinsville.”