HOMESTEAD, Fla. – As Kyle Busch put together a flawless race Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, rare mistakes hampered his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and ultimately scuttled their title chances.
Both Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin fell short of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship glory during the Ford EcoBoost 400, showing strength at various points during the race and even running nearly nose-to-tail at one point in the top three positions as they jockeyed for the crown.
However, one fatal flaw befell each team and bounced them from contention at the end.
Truex’s demise actually came on lap 121, when his No. 19 Toyota Camry crew put the front tires on in the wrong positions (left front on right side and vice versa) during a routine green-flag pit stop in the second stage.
Though the Mayetta, N.J., driver felt the issue immediately, Truex was forced to come back down pit road a lap later for an extra stop, rectifying the issue but dropping him a lap down as a result.
Truex caught a break on lap 136, when John Hunter Nemechek spun in turn two and brought out the only non-stage-related yellow of the night, giving him the free pass and putting him back on the lead lap.
However, though Truex rallied from 13th to fourth by the end of the second stage at lap 160, he was still just far enough back that traffic wreaked havoc on him during the final run to the finish.
When the race went green with 101 to go, Truex lined up third but got pinned behind Kevin Harvick, who got a slow start and bottlenecked the bottom lane as Busch and Hamlin got away up high.
Truex settled in fourth at that point, and it took him nearly 30 laps before he could retake third, passing Harvick before closing on Hamlin’s rear bumper for the runner-up position.
However, Busch was running away at that point, leaving Truex no choice but to stay out long in an attempt to use fresher tires at the very end to try and chase the No. 18 down for the win.
Busch pitted from the lead with 57 to go, while Truex waited five laps longer before making his final stop and came out 10 seconds back of Busch when the pit cycle finally concluded at lap 223 of 267.
But the die was cast by then. Busch hung on, as Truex could only trim his deficit down to 4.578 seconds.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Truex, who led 98 of the first 140 laps and lapped all the way up to 13th during the opening stage with a car that appeared to be the fastest mount in town for much of the day.
“Ultimately, it was the loss of track position that bit us,” Truex explained. “We restarted the third stage in third, and I really wish I could have been second or fourth at that point. I got blitzed on the outside by a couple guys, and then I had to just run the crap out of my right front (tire) to get by back them. I got tight on that run, and it took me forever to just get by a few cars.
“I lost a bunch of ground there and then just was too far back to make anything happen on the last run,” he added. “It came down to track position, and if I could have been up front and controlled the race, I think I could have driven away. At the end we were quite a bit quicker, but it it was too much of a gap.”
Truex also noted the tires being swapped wasn’t a miscue he’d ever encountered in his driving career.
“I’ve never had that happen,” Truex lamented. “I don’t even know what to say. It doesn’t drive well with the left front on the right front, though, I can tell you that. It’s very tight.
“You’ve got to be perfect in this format, and that one mistake probably cost us a shot at it.”
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