For much of Sunday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, it was looking like the eventual race winner going home with a new clock was going to be either Denny Hamlin or Ryan Blaney. Combined, they led 433 of the 500 laps in the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. Blaney, swept both stage wins while Hamlin was second in each too.
Instead, it was Martin Truex Jr. celebrating in victory lane for the second consecutive year in the spring race on the .526-mile Virginia paperclip despite him leading only 20 laps on the day. How?
Well, Blaney took himself out of contention on the final pit stop under caution on Lap 454. He entered pit road in second but exited fifth. See, he had a slow stop and ran over the air jack hose on his way out and drug it out of his pit box. That’s a costly penalty. So, he’d go from restarting fifth to 19th.
With around 40 laps remaining on the final restart, that’s far too many positions to make up in to few laps. He’d have to settle for 11th as a result.
Truex, actually won the race off pit road as he saw the opportunity ahead.
“I got the launch because I seen him coming,” Truex said on his final stop. “I knew it was going to be close. Really just tried to push it there. Honestly, that was really not a lot different than the time before on pit road. I’d have to really look back and see if it was that much better.
“You see an opportunity there, it makes you kind of try to give a little extra. Overall it was the same as the rest of the stops. I think the pit crew just stepped it up, did a good job on that last one.”
Still, he was third to Blaney and Hamlin in both stages and didn’t feel like his car was on par to Hamlin’s.
“Yeah, it was interesting how it all played out there,” Truex said. “I thought throughout the day we were a third- to a fifth-place car in there. At one point in the middle of the race we got off a little bit, probably a sixth- or seventh-place car. It was kind of a weird day.
“Proud of the guys for working hard on it. They did a great job. That last pit stop we were able to get us the lead.”
But, Truex wasn’t able to hold Hamlin off on the ensuing restart. Hamlin, just as he did all race long, took over the lead on the restart on Lap 458.
“Couldn’t quite hold off the 11 on that restart,” he continued. “He was really fast firing off. It didn’t really surprise me. I was pretty loose. Not surprised. He was really fast on restarts all day from what I could tell. I was only around him on one of them. He beat my back bumper off in the middle of the corner just being so much faster than me.
“I wasn’t really surprised. I was a little too loose there to take off. He was holding me down tight, which he’s supposed to. I just couldn’t get the gas down. Not surprised at all, to be honest.
“Just tried to stay with him and take care of my car. Knew there was enough laps left that tire wear in the long run was going to come into play.”
The thing is, Hamlin had 42 laps to the checkered. His car was falling off badly as a run would go on. Truex’s on the flip side was coming on as the race went on.
“He started getting tight, our car was getting better and better,” said Truex. “We were able to take advantage of it. Really happy. For whatever reason our car really turned on when the lights went down. Always good when a plan comes together and it works out the way you hoped it would.”
There was nothing Hamlin could do about his No. 11 Toyota during Sunday’s race to make it better. He had what he had. That’s why despite leading a race-high 276 of 500 laps on Sunday afternoon, he couldn’t hold off his teammate in the end to win.
Hamlin’s car was great on short run speed, but he didn’t have enough pace over a long green flag run. Without a caution in the final laps, Hamlin had nothing for Truex. That’s why he would finish third despite leading 246 more laps than the race winner.
Hamlin said that there wasn’t much they could do during the race to make his car better saying, “I had what I had.” The only thing that he could during the race since he had such a good short run car was that he would run as hard as he could for the time that it was good.
“If I could build a gap over the guy that was behind me, it would just take him longer to get to me,” Hamlin continued. “Instead of me trying to ride and save my stuff, all I did was let those guys, when my car started fading, they were right on me instead of half a straightaway back. Those are the cards we were dealt.
“The reason we even took the lead on that final restart is because we were good on the short runs. We made sure we preserved what strong suit we did have, which was the first 20 laps.
“I thought it was a matter of time,” Hamlin said of Truex catching him in the end. “With about 25 to go or so, he already got into my rear bumper, kind of beating the back end off. It was just a matter of time.
“The only hope, we had an extra set of tires over everyone. Hell, we would have pitted, taken tires, restarted 20th. That wasn’t going to work either.
“Tough to say. We weren’t stuck in a box where we could make good in a long run. The reason we led so many laps is we had a lot of short runs, great starts in the middle of the race, not much green flag racing. When we had green flag racing, again, we were fast a little time, not a lot of time.”
Truex, caught Hamlin and passed him on Lap 484 and would lead the final 16 laps en route to his 29th career Cup Series win. The two had some intense side-by-side battles before Truex finally cleared him, but Truex never had any intentions of moving his teammate out of the way there despite being faster. He preached patience would pay off in the long run and it did.
“It depends on the track I guess. Here it was obvious that we were quite a bit faster at that point when I caught the 11,” he said of racing a teammate for the win on the short track. “He was racing as hard as he could to keep us back. I knew if I was patient, I was going to be able to complete the pass.
“I don’t know. I’ve never really knocked a teammate out of the way. I don’t know there is a right time to do it. I guess it just depends on how you race each other normally, what your relationship is.
“You know, it was weird. His car, he was really good all night. The last run it really looked like he flipped the switch and got tight, which probably the sun going down, I don’t know if they made adjustments to be able to run faster for shorter runs at the end. I don’t know, whatever happened. His car really flipped a switch.
At that point I was like, I knew I could get by him, I just needed to be patient. No sense in pushing it with plenty of laps left and the 9 was pretty far back.”
Truex said he felt bad for Hamlin that he led so many laps but didn’t reach victory lane in the end.
“You never want to be on the other end of it,” he said. “I’ve certainly been on plenty, losing plenty races where we dominated. I know how it feels. It sucks. At the end of the day these races are really, really long. A lot can change. You really just have to hope that things play out the way you need them to.
“For whatever reason his car just got really tight there with I want to say 20, 30 to go, whatever it was, whenever we made the pass. Our car was really strong at that point.
“We took our lumps and battled really hard all day for that end result to pay off. It feels good. It’s nice when things work out the way you need them to in your favor at the end of a race.”