James: With Watkins Glen win, Martin Truex Jr. machine rolls on


WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It was a microcosm of the 2017 season.

Martin Truex Jr. was denied for a while, albeit early. Then he took control. His counterparts fussed and fumed at each other trying fruitlessly to catch him, and when his adversaries ran out of gas — literally, this time — the Furniture Row Racing driver was right up front, as usual.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader extended his final fuel window to the utmost at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, denied a desperate Matt Kenseth on the last lap and won for a series-best fourth time to pull further away from the field as the regular season dwindles.

Truex’s win improved his series-best pile of playoff points to 34, a growing sum that will be added to his total through the playoffs, buffering him from mistakes and greatly increasing his chances to reach the four-driver finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In the process, Truex has exploited the midsummer malaise of Kyle Larson, who led the regular-season standings by 18 points over Truex six weeks ago, but is now a massive 122 points behind and in third place. Kyle Busch is in second place, 116 points back.

The regular-season champion will be awarded an additional 15 points when the playoffs begin — more capital for Truex and more room to maneuver for crew chief Cole Pearn. Second in playoff points? Defending and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.

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It seems a Truex team that was bedeviled by odd racing circumstance and pit calls run afoul the past few years has become an easy championship favorite.

Pearn’s not conceding that, not in a one-race final. But he is confident his driver, who finished a career-best fourth in 2015, can reach the final. And he has no plans to coast as Truex had to while saving fuel Sunday.

“I think, yeah, we’re a favorite to make it (to Homestead), for sure, but I want to look back on this year and win as many races as possible, so if we blow up at lap 2 or wreck at lap 2 at Homestead, you don’t look back on your year as a disappointment,” Pearn said. “So I think going into the year we really just wanted to do as well as we could all year and enjoy it and whatever happens at the end of the year, happens at the end of the year.”

Truex is a smidge bolder.

“We should essentially be a lock for Homestead,” he said.

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After being asked to save fuel in the final 21 laps, and allowing Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney past, Truex bided his time until they all eventually had to pit.

On the final lap, Truex made two saves to fend off Kenseth, the 2003 series champion who is winless this season and holding on to the final points position as he winds down his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing. The team informed the 45-year-old veteran that he would be replaced in the No. 20 Toyota next season by 21-year-old Erik Jones.

Behind Truex, dramatics flared for those chasing him. Truex had just taken the lead from JGR’s Daniel Suarez on a lap 44 restart when longtime foils Keselowski and Busch collided. Keselowski, without benefit of a replay, speculated that “it looked like (Busch) tried make a big move from a couple car lengths back, and it was more than there was room for — for all of us. Probably didn’t help either one us; was a bummer.

“(Busch) probably had the dominant car. He didn’t need any trouble. But neither did I,” Keselowski said, adding that he didn’t think a chat with Busch would work as he doesn’t think “he’s really the listening type.”

Busch threatened over team radio to “kill that (expletive)” but left the postrace grid quickly after an amicable chat with AJ Allmendinger, who was behind Keselowski on the fateful sequence. Of an incident with Keselowski, he quipped, “Imagine that.”

Keselowski said he was unaware of Busch’s presence until contact. Keselowski attempted to stretch his fuel in the final laps but was forced to pit for fuel and finished 15th, in part because of a late penalty. Busch rallied to fourth in the late stages but faded to seventh after requiring fuel.

But that was way behind Truex as the New Jersey native reveled in a first win at what he considers one of his four home tracks.

“We were able to do the same thing last year, but there was no bonus points to be had,” Truex said of the first-year scoring system. “I don’t know that we’re surprised, but when I look at the number of points we have compared to second, it is a bit surprising to me.

“It’s always a reminder, like man, this has been really, really an incredible season, and it’s so hard to win races at this level, let alone do what we’ve done.”

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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