SONOMA, Calif. — For Martin Truex Jr., a welcome oasis called Sonoma Raceway at long last ended one of the longest droughts in NASCAR racing.
With a convincing victory in Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350, Truex ended a winless streak of 218 races dating to June 4, 2007, at Dover, where he finished 7,355 seconds ahead of runner-up
Ryan Newman. On Sunday at Sonoma, Truex beat second-place Jeff Gordon by an even bigger margin—8.133 seconds—as Juan Pablo Montoya dropped from the second position after running out of fuel on the next-to-last lap.
Truex set a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series record for the largest number of races between a driver’s first and second victories. It was the second longest streak between any two Cup wins. When Bill Elliott triumphed at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2001, the victory snapped a winless streak of 226 races.
Carl Edwards ran third Sunday, followed by Kurt Busch, who rallied from consecutive pit road speeding penalties to score his fourth top five of the season. Clint Bowyer, last year’s winner, came home fifth, followed Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Truex said after climbing from his car in Victory Lane. “I’ve got so many people to thank for sticking with me … We’ve had cars really fast all year long. We’ve had some tough luck, but that’s part of racing.”
Truex had finished second six times since his 2007 win.
“I’m just proud of these guys for sticking behind me and working hard and giving me race cars like this,” he said. Truex’s elation carried over into his post-race press conference. “What streak?” he quipped and then was reminded of team owner Michael Waltrip’s 462-race winless streak before he got his first Cup win.
“I had about four years left in me then, didn’t I,” Truex joked.
Greg Biffle, series leader Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10. Montoya, who was running second with two laps left, fell to 34th at the finish after running out of fuel.
Like Busch, Gordon also had to overcome a penalty to score his runner-up finish. Just before caution flew on Lap 24 because of rain, Gordon tried to duck onto pit road before it closed but missed the light by about a second.
Consequently, he had to restart at the back of the field on Lap 31 and spent the rest of the race—through hard driving and solid strategy—working his way to the front.
“We were trying to beat that caution and just missed it by a split second,” Gordon said. “Right as I committed to come to pit road, I saw the red light come up, and I knew that that was going to cost us a lot.
“But this team has been faced with a lot worse adversity than that. Luckily we had a fast race car and stayed with our pit strategy, and things went our way. There was a bunch of wrecks that happened right in front of me that I was able to avoid, and we just had a really good race car and were able to drive up through. That part was a lot of fun.”
Varying pit strategies scrambled the field after the cars of Kyle Busch and Edwards tangled on Lap 82 to cause the seventh caution of the race. Led by Truex, the top 15 cars stayed on the track, all close on fuel to finish the race.
Johnson restarted 16th on two new tires, while Joey Logano, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a group that changed four tires under the yellow. The new tires made a difference, as Gordon, Kurt Busch and Bowyer all charged into the top five. But staying out was a winning move for Truex, who built a fivesecond lead with 10 laps left and cruised to victory.
Just a suggestion
After racing the new Gen-6 car for the first time on a road course, runner-up Jeff Gordon has a note for NASCAR’s suggestion box.
“There’s one thing I’m going to talk to NASCAR about with this car,” Gordon said after posting a much-needed top five that vaulted him three positions to 13th in the Cup standings. “We don’t have the body in the right position for the road courses to turn right. When we go to Watkins Glen, as fast as those righthanders are, we’re going to have some issues.
“There’s nothing to lean on. You have plenty of grip on the lefts, because the body still has a little bit of rake on the rights. It has nice sideforce for the right side of the car for those left turns, but on the right turns, the cars are just so out of control.”
That’s an issue Gordon hopes NASCAR will address.
“I would like to see if there’s something they can think about for that,” Gordon said. “But, other than that, I love the Gen-6 car everywhere we go. It’s got good grip and drives well and looks great, and I think that—other than those fast right-handers—it was the same here today.”
Kurt Busch’s No. 78 Chevrolet SS was one of the fastest cars in Sunday’s race, but the day started to go haywire for the 2004 Sprint Cup champion during a green-flag pit stop on Lap 35.
Busch entered pit road too fast, and NASCAR assessed a passthrough penalty for speeding. Busch compounded the problem by speeding on entry during the pass-through and earned a stopand- go penalty that left him a lap down.
Busch regained the lost lap when race winner Martin Truex Jr. came to pit road on Lap 62, and a caution on the following circuit gave him a chance to begin a methodical climb through the field.
Truex was able to make a significant move at Sonoma precisely because of the compression of the standings in positions 11- 20. But what Truex did, any other driver in the group can do. Sunday's runner-up, Jeff Gordon, is winless through 16 races and in 13th place -- on the outside looking in.
A Gordon victory in the next 10 races could change that dramatically. With Gordon only 12 points behind Truex, a string of top fives could accomplish the same thing. Ditto for Joey Logano in 14th. Logano is a mere 14 points out of 10th place.
The bottom line is that Truex can enjoy the victory that broke a 218-race drought, but he can't relax. The 10 drivers in the compact group immediately behind him have the same opportunity to make the same sort of move.
For those currently on the Chase bubble, security isn't likely to come until the series arrives at Richmond, 10 races down the road.