By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
After Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Martin Truex Jr. may want to make a stop at the roulette wheel at one of the numerous Vegas casinos and put his money on the number four. Truex qualified fourth, finished fourth and is fourth in the championship standings after the Pennzoil 400.
While on paper it may appear to have been an uneventful day, it was anything but for the 2017 Cup Series champion and defending race winner.
Truex finished second in Stage 1 to pick up nine championship points, but would fight handling issues during the second stage and finish in seventh. Truex was running tenth in the early portion of the final stage when a caution flew for Jamie McMurray. Crew chief Cole Pearn elected to keep Truex out on the track as he and driver agreed that they weren’t going to gain anything by hitting pit road with the rest of the leaders. Restarting first with 85 laps to go, the No. 78 Toyota quickly dropped several positions as Pearn calmly radioed, “Well, that didn’t work.”
Fortunately for Truex, an accident between Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott just a few laps later allowed the team to hit pit road for fresh tires and restart in the 10th position. Despite feeling a vibration in his No. 78 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, Truex was able to pick off positions over the course of the final run to earn his second top-five finish of the season.
“It was up and down for sure, it was a battle. We battled the car, battled track position a lot and had some trouble in the pits here and there,” Truex said. “All in all a good, solid day. We started fourth and finished fourth, it sounds easy, but there was a lot going on in between there that we had to overcome. It definitely wasn’t easy, but I’m proud of everybody. Still trying to figure it out and we’ll just keep working forward here.”
Last season when the series hit the first stop on their West Coast portion of the schedule, Truex put on a dominating performance at Vegas, sweeping all three stages en route to his first of eight victories on the season. The victory boosted the confidence of the Furniture Row Racing team, taking off the pressure of making the playoffs and showing the team’s strength on the mile-and-a-half tracks that dominate the schedule.
Prior to Sunday, Truex was the only Cup driver to sweep all three stages at any track, also doing so at Kentucky in 2017. Kevin Harvick joined that club with his performance, leading 214 laps – a track record for a Las Vegas race-winner – to earn his second win of 2018 in the No. 4 Ford.
“I have to hand it to them, they did their homework and they’re really fast and they’re doing a good job,” Truex said of Harvick and the Ford camp in general. “I’m not going to be the one that sits here and says there’s an unfair advantage because I haven’t figured that out yet. We’re going to go back to work and we’ve got some things coming that we’ve been working on. We’re right there; we just can’t get the balance of our car where we need it. Just been struggling with getting it to turn good enough these last two weeks and when we get that figured out we’ll be right there with them.
“Like I said, just one of those days where we got what we could and it was just an okay day. I’m not disappointed with fourth, it was a battle today and we fought hard. With two top-fives in the last two weeks, it’s decent, but it’s not what we want. We know what we need to work on and we’ll get to working on them.”
The defending championship team also knows the ultimate goal is to be strong when it really counts and that’s in the playoffs.
“It’s a marathon and it’s a grind, honestly it really matters where you’re at when those last 10 races start and I’ve learned that over the past few years. Obviously you want to run good, be consistent and get stage points and all those things, but just being consistent and continuing to work on our cars – we’ll get there. Hopefully we’ll get a few wins along the way, but we know when it really matters is later in the season.”