Martin Truex Jr. dejected, Kyle Larson just short at Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. — Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson were the class of the NASCAR Cup Series field in Sunday night’s Easter special at Richmond Raceway, leading 372 of the 407 laps in the Toyota Owners 400. It’s that extra seven laps and the critical moments leading up to it when everything fell apart for both.

Truex’s hopes for his first Cup Series win of the season were dashed when three occurrences unraveled the race for the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing veteran. There was the late caution that forced overtime, the loss of one spot in the race off pit road, and the fateful final green flag when teammate Denny Hamlin scooted by with a quick-reflex restart and pushed his way to the point.

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It all equaled a fourth-place finish for a driver who spent most of the night in first, a frustrating result at a track where Truex has won three times but has lost a handful more under heartbreaking circumstances.

“Unfortunately, it’s happened to us a few times in Richmond here,” said Truex, who led a race-high 228 laps. “You know, lead the whole race and then some stupid, some dumbass move brings out a caution coming to the white flag and ruins our whole night, so it was unfortunate. But honestly, just awesome job by my team. The Auto-Owners Camry was a rocket. It was something like we’ve had here in the past, and unfortunately, this has happened to us a few times. Come in with the lead, go out second to the fastest pit crew on pit road is, it’s a tough one to swallow. But I feel like we still could’ve had a race for it, but just got used up in Turn 1 on the restart.”

Truex used his No. 19 Toyota’s bumper to show his disdain for two targets on the cool-down lap. Larson, who scraped by him for third place in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, was first after the two came together multiple times in the final lap of overtime. Truex also nudged Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota before parking on pit road, telling reporters later that he felt his teammate had one, jumped the overtime restart, and two, aggressively forced his way by in the first turn.

“I just, I felt like the 11 used me up down there in Turn 1, and I didn’t really appreciate a teammate racing me like that,” said Truex, who leaves Richmond with his lead in the Cup Series standings intact — now 14 points over new second-place driver Larson. “I wish he would have, you know, gave me a chance. But yeah, that’s the way it is. And then, the 5 just bumped me, drove into the side of me in Turns 1 and 2, and I got a little loose down the backstretch. I don’t know if my left-rear (tire) was going down or what, and I kind of slammed into him. No big deal.”

Hamlin defended his restart tactics, saying that eventual second-place finisher Joey Logano was laying back and that Truex was inching ahead. “I wasn’t going to let them have an advantage that my team earned on pit road,” said Hamlin, who added that he “went right at it” as he reached the restart zone. “Certainly made sure I went to my nose, got there, but I took off right away. Still, we were side by side down the water into Turn 1.”

Larson led twice for 144 laps, and when his No. 5 Chevy wasn’t out front, it was typically found running second to Truex. Larson seemed to get the upper hand on a pit-stop exchange when he squeezed his way in front of Truex, using the first pit stall he earned as the pole winner to his advantage, but the No. 19 Toyota reasserted his strength and regained the spot from Larson five laps later.

Larson faded slightly during the last green-flag run on what crew chief Cliff Daniels called a mismatched set of tires, but his night threatened to take a more drastic turn when Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 Toyota clipped him at the exit of Turn 4 with two laps left in regulation. Larson’s No. 5 dipped into the frontstretch grass, and he quickly righted himself, asking Daniels if he’d only lost two spots in the off-course excursion. Daniels replied yes, saying he planned on getting them back.

Kyle Larson spins from contact from Bubba Wallace at Richmond Raceway.
Kyle Larson spins from contact from Bubba Wallace at Richmond Raceway.

“Just good fortune, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t really know how to describe it,” Larson said with a laugh. “Just got lucky. Got lucky that I had room to spin and thankfully I was hoping the grass wasn’t going to be too slick, and I kind of got it pointed somewhat straighter when I got to the grass. That helped me get going. So just yeah, thanking my lucky stars.”

Wallace walked 20-some pit stalls from his parking spot on pit road to offer a face-to-face apology, taking Larson by the shoulder to explain his side and to make a mention about karma. Larson finished one spot better than where he was running at the time of his spin; Wallace’s No. 23 Toyota crew had trouble fastening a left-side wheel on the team’s final pit stop, and he wound up 13th. “Whatever’s coming my way, I know it,” Wallace told Larson. “I expect it.”

“I appreciate it for sure,” Larson said. “I guess I would have been pissed off if I would have fully spun, and his comment or his apology probably wouldn’t have mattered as much right now, but I would have eventually gotten over it. Because I kept going straight, and he came up, whatever, it’s good. We’ve had our run-ins, and I don’t think tonight was anything intentional.”

As for his back-and-forth with Truex on the two-lap overtime dash, Larson said he felt he was just a convenient scapegoat for Truex’s earlier frustration with Hamlin.

“Martin, I don’t know if his spotter didn’t say that I was inside of him or what, but he just hung a left and hit my right-front, had me up on the apron and then turned left on me down the middle of the backstretch,” Larson said. “So I kind of just, we’re drag-racing to the start/finish line and didn’t really care at that point if I was going to squeeze him in the wall since he decided to turn left on me down the backstretch. So I think, ultimately, he’s just mad at Denny, and I was the closest guy to him to take some anger out on.”