A week after a chaotic Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series traveled to Sparta’s Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400 on Saturday. Despite an early strong showing from pole-sitter Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. led the way to dominate all three stages en route to his third win of the season.
Entering the weekend, drivers were ready to take on a new track pavement; after a repave prior to the 2016 race, two inches of asphalt were added to the surface last October. Although it attempted to provide a smoother track and extended the repave’s life, bumps remained in the surface. “I hit that bump last year and nearly took @dennyhamlin and myself out. Was hoping it was fixed. Note to self: still there,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted.
Before Saturday’s Xfinity and Cup races, NASCAR summoned the Tire Dragon machine, which ran tires along the middle groove of the track to provide an extra racing lane.
“Hopefully, with the Trucks being out there all day (on Wednesday), the Truck race (on Thursday), it’ll be pretty worked in for the Cup cars here (for Friday practice). But it’s still a whole new repave, a whole new deal again,” Erik Jones commented.
Kyle Busch started the race on the pole alongside Martin Truex Jr. On the other hand, points leader Kyle Larson missed qualifying as he was stuck in inspection, forcing him to start at the rear of the field.
Busch led the first 28 laps before Truex led lap 29. Busch quickly retook the lead to remain in 1st for the competition caution on lap 30. The restart took place on lap 36 as Busch remained the leader, though Jamie McMurray, who restarted behind him in 3rd, passed Truex for 2nd. Truex reclaimed the lead on lap 68 and went on to win his 12th stage of the season. While Busch settled for 2nd, Larson quickly moved his way up the field to take 3rd in the stage. Behind them were Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott.
After slicing through the field, Larson was forced to do it a second time as he and Hamlin were caught speeding on pit road.
The second stage commenced on lap 88 with Busch as the leader after a strong restart. However, the green flag run was short as Brad Keselowski spun in turn three, collecting Clint Bowyer; while Jimmie Johnson avoiding the spinning Fords, he collided with the wall. The next restart took place on lap 93, with a solid start by Busch to grant him the lead. Once again, however, the caution came out a lap later when Kasey Kahne made contact with Trevor Bayne on the inside line entering turn one. Another restart took place on lap 99. 13 laps later, Bayne spun in turn four to produce the fifth caution of the day.
Busch continued to lead the field with the restart on lap 116, though Truex pulled ahead on lap 134. Three laps later, Joey Gase hit the turn one wall to bring out the caution. The next restart took place on lap 142, though Truex paced the field to the green-checkered flag to win another stage, followed by Busch, Kenseth, Harvick, Jones, McMurray, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Bowyer and Elliott.
Stage #3 began on lap 166 with a new front row in Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney. Six laps later, Truex passed Logano to take the lead. As the laps continued, Truex’s margin over the rest of the field started to increase; by lap 188, he held a 6.5-second advantage over 2nd-placed Logano.
Logano eventually pitted on lap 206, beginning a cycle of green flag pit stops. As Truex continued to dominate, he placed multiple cars a lap down before pitting on lap 228, relinquishing 1st to Dale Earnhardt Jr. When Earnhardt pitted, Truex quickly reclaimed the position. Truex’s success continued as he continued to force cars to fall a lap, including members of the top-10 when he lapped Kenseth on lap 249.
With seven laps remaining, Truex held a 14.846-second gap over the rest of the field. The margin quickly dissipated with two laps to go, when Kurt Busch’s rear gear failed to force a caution and overtime. Truex stayed out, while other drivers like Larson pitted. On the first overtime attempt, Truex had a good restart and pulled away, though the session quickly ended when Kenseth, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suárez and Darrell Wallace Jr. wrecked on the backstretch. As Truex had already crossed the overtime line, the race was ruled official and he was declared the winner. After starting in 40th, Larson finished 2nd, an effort that prompted team owner Chip Ganassi to tweet, “Passed 78 cars tonight but not the #78 car! Back to front to back to almost the front. Nice drive @KyleLarsonRacin”. Elliott finished 3rd, followed by Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jones, McMurray, Logano, Harvick and Blaney.
“I thought we were dead,” Truex exclaimed. “I thought we were done. This is completely unbelievable, I’m so excited to win here. We had a shot to win here last year, but then it got away from us on fuel mileage and I just wanted to win here so, so bad. This is sweet redemption.”
Next week, the Cup Series travels north to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Overton’s 301. Matt Kenseth is the defending winner.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)