SPARTA, Ky. (AP) — No matter which driver led Martin Truex Jr., the advantage always seemed temporary as he positioned himself to make a pivotal move.
Distance usually followed his passes, particularly after his final one that sealed his dominance.
Truex Jr. won the NASCAR Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, passing Brad Keselowski and then Kurt Busch late on the way to repeating as champion on Saturday night.
Truex’s No. 78 Toyota Camry appeared even more dominant than last July as he led five times for 174 of 267 laps and swept the first two stages from the pole. The defending Cup champion was always in contention in the 400-mile race, even while trailing. He proved it at clutch moments late, overtaking Keselowski on lap 201 and Busch 23 laps later to become Kentucky’s first back-to-back winner, earning his fourth victory this season and 19th of his career.
“It feels good, you know,” said Truex, who won by 1.901 seconds on the 1.5-mile track. “You never know how these races are going to play out. You never know quite what is going to happen, and we had such a strong Toyota tonight they weren’t going to beat us.”
His competition certainly couldn’t hold him off.
Drivers such as Keselowski and Kurt Busch did their best, only to be overtaken by a car and driver that have quickly made Kentucky their domain.
“We had better speed than we’ve had at mile-and-a-halves, but not enough to run with the 78 (Truex),” said Keselowski, who led twice for 38 laps.
Dominant as Truex was here a year ago in leading 152 of 274 laps, Busch and Keselowski still loomed as favorites after combining for five victories in the previous seven races. Keselowski’s knack for winning this race in even-numbered years was particularly compelling, and for a moment it looked like he might do it again with a bold rush off pit road to claim the lead entering the final segment.
Truex soon took care of that before Busch grabbed the lead on lap 210, a brief edge as the defending Cup champion took over for good 14 laps later.
Truex’s dominant run to victory last July provided an opening some hoped might expand membership in Kentucky Speedway’s exclusive winner’s club. He turned out keeping things the same by taking control when he wanted.
It was that way all night for Truex, who led 51 laps to win the first stage and led 118 after claiming the second. Even when he trailed, it wasn’t by much as he stayed close enough to make a run. Just seven drivers led overall, with 10 laps divided among four drivers.
Ryan Blaney and Keselowski were next in Fords, followed by Kyle Busch (Toyota) and Kevin Harvick (Ford).
Rounding out the top 10 were Kurt Busch, Erik Jones — who started second in a Toyota — Aric Almirola, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano. Kurt Busch led three times for 45 laps.
Larson ran in the top five for much of the night, an impressive performance considering he started from the back of the field as penalty for missing driver introductions. His chances were hurt by a trackbar issue that shuffled him back in the pack.
“It’s hard to say if I would have won or not,” Larson said, “but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”
Logano started 19th but led five laps after staying out early while a bunch of drivers pitted. Jimmie Johnson finished 13 spots higher after beginning 27th and led three laps. But his drought reached 72 races dating back to June 2017.
FIRST TO GO
The race featured just four cautions for 22 laps, the first coming after Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevy hit the turn 3 wall. He was unhurt and suggested that a broken brake rotor might have been the problem.
Chad Knaus said earlier Saturday that he recently signed a two-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports to remain as crew chief for the No. 48 Chevy of seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson through 2020. Knaus and Johnson have been together since 2002. His current deal was set to expire after this season.
The series heads to Loudon, New Hampshire, on July 22 for its lone New England stop. Denny Hamlin won last year’s 301-mile race.
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