By Reid Spencer NASCAR Wire Service June 3, 2018 at 5:17 pm
LONG POND, Pa. – Taking charge of Sunday’s Pocono 400 by staying out under caution on Lap 140 of 160, reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, Martin Truex Jr. pulled away after a restart with seven laps left to win the race and inject himself emphatically into the title conversation.
The outcome was all about control. Five-time winner Kevin Harvick had it for most of the event, leading a race-high 89 laps. Four-time winner Kyle Busch had it late, winning the race off pit road on Lap 126 and leading Truex and Harvick until a debris caution slowed the action on Lap 139 and changed the course of the race.
Busch finished third and Harvick fourth, as Kyle Larson grabbed second place after a Lap 144 restart and held the rest of the way, finishing 2.496 seconds behind Truex. With the victory, the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota made sure NASCAR’s Dominant Duo of Harvick and Busch can rightfully now be renamed the Big Three.
The Mayetta, New Jersey, driver won for the second time at Pocono, the second time this season and the 17th time in his career. Collectively, Harvick, Busch and Truex have triumphed in 11 of the 14 Cup races this year.
Truex was running second to Busch when NASCAR called the debris caution on Lap 139, after a parade of cars ran over a shiny object in Turn 1. When crew chief Adam Stevens called Busch to pit road — and Truex, Harvick, Chase Elliott and Larson remained on the track, Truex had control of the race — and made the most of it.
“It’s been a really good weekend overall,” said Truex, who led 31 laps and overcame a slow pit stop that dropped him to 14th after he won the race’s first stage. “I feel like we’re getting back to where we were last year (when Truex won eight races).
“It’s always fun to win, but especially when you beat the best guys out there. These two guys (Busch and Harvick) were so fast today. Honestly, we were all really equal. It was a matter of who could get out front. The 4 (Harvick) and I stayed on tires. We felt like in practice we were really fast on scuffs. (Crew chief) Cole (Pearn) made a good call to stay out, and once I got in clean air, this thing was a rocket ship.”
Busch lost last year’s spring race at Pocono when he stayed out on old tires. Stevens made the opposite call on Sunday, but fresh rubber didn’t produce the benefit he and Busch had expected.
“We decided to pit and put tires on again right there, because we had about 10 or 11 laps on tires,” Busch said. “And that’s where we got burned here in this race in that exact situation last year. So we didn’t want to make the same mistake again.
“But once I got back there, I just couldn’t pass those guys. I was just stuck where I was at. The four tires just didn’t do anything today. It was certainly all about being out front.”
Harvick held the lead when Derrike Cope spun off Larson’s front bumper on Lap 124, causing the third caution of the afternoon and the first for a racing incident. Harvick was blocked in his pits by pole winner Ryan Blaney and lost the lead to Busch. For Harvick, the die was cast from that point on.
“We had a good car all day,” Harvick said. “Just came down to really losing control of the race on the last pit stop. Really not pitting or pitting didn’t really seem to matter. We lost control to the 18 (Busch) and wound up losing a couple more spots on the restart starting on the inside, and that was the end of the day.
“Car was fast, and everybody did a great job. It just didn’t work out.”
Brad Keselowski ran fifth, followed by Blaney, Aric Almirola and Jimmie Johnson, who led his first two laps of the season during the first exchange of green-flag pit stops. Busch leads the series by 87 points over Harvick in second and 90 over Joey Logano (ninth Sunday) in third.
Larson acknowledged that his runner-up finish was serendipitous
“We weren’t quite as fast as what I thought we’d be after practice,” Larson said. “I ran probably sixth or seventh all day long and finished second. Was happy about that, because I felt like, obviously, we were at a little bit of a disadvantage on tires there, but the track position overcame that.
“But I felt like if I didn’t have a good restart on any one of those, I would have fell back outside the top five from those guys on fresher tires. Happy we finished second but needed a lot more to kind of compete with the three guys that ran up front all day.”
In other words, Larson has work to do before the Big Three can become the Fabulous Four.