Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a race where Martin Truex Jr. came in seeking redemption on two instances. The first was to continue his recent string of consistent runs following a rough start to this season. The second was to claim redemption at Atlanta after falling short to Brad Keselowski one year ago while being botched up from lapped traffic. While Truex fell short of the race win, a third-place result was a result that left the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion content with his run.
Starting 11th, Truex wasted no time making his way into the top 10, where he was able to do so by the 10th lap as he was in eighth. Following the competition caution on Lap 25 and a restart five laps later, Truex used the outside lane to his advantage to gain a multitude of spots, which included racing three-wide with teammate Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola, and making his way into the top five.
By Lap 35, Truex moved up to fourth and five laps later, Truex found himself in the runner-up spot, trailing race leader Kevin Harvick. Following the first round of green-flag pit stops past the 60-lap mark, Truex went from trailing Harvick by a second to approximately four seconds. On Lap 86, after working to decrease his deficit from Harvick, Truex gained a huge momentum in Turn 2 and moved to the inside of Harvick to take the lead through Turn 3. Just as Truex was starting to pull away and lap some cars, a late caution flew due to a single-car spin. Under caution, Truex pitted and was able to exit first following a strong stop by his pit crew.
When the first stage restarted with six laps remaining, Truex received a push from Clint Bowyer and teammate Kyle Busch on the inside lane to lead through Turn 1 and stabilize his advantage the following lap. While most of the field jostled for positions, Truex was able to fend off his teammate Busch to claim his first stage win of the season.
When the second stage started, Truex restarted second on the outside lane but received a push from teammate Denny Hamlin that allowed Truex to battle hard with Bowyer for the lead. Four laps later, however, Bowyer was able to clear Truex for the lead. Truex spent the majority of the green-flag run chasing Bowyer until he returned to the lead when Bowyer made an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 147. Nearly 10 laps later, a second round of green-flag pit stops commenced. Following Truex’s pit stop on Lap 160 and when nearly the entire field cycled through, the driver of the No. 19 Auto-Owners Insurance/Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota found himself in second once again behind Bowyer.
For 15 laps through Lap 175, Truex was able to decrease his deficit from Bowyer from eight to less than two seconds while on fresher tires. Nearly 10 laps later, Truex returned to the lead. With nine laps remaining in the second stage, at the time when Truex stabilized his lead over teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin, a late caution fell for a single-car spin in Turn 4. Under caution, the leaders pitted and Truex exited second after being beaten by Kyle Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s Toyota off of pit road.
With four laps remaining in the stage, the high lane dealt to the favor of Truex as he was able to reassume the lead in Turn 3. For the next three laps, Truex was able to hold on to win the second stage for his second stage victory of the day/season and earn valuable points towards the playoffs.
When the final stage started with 108 laps remaining, Truex briefly slipped to third but returned to second while Harvick stormed to the lead. Over the course of the green-flag run, Truex narrowed his deficit from Harvick to as close as six-tenths of a second, but Harvick was able to stabilize his advantage to around a second. Following the final round of green-flag pit stops with less than 70 laps remaining, Truex was still trailing Harvick as Harvick started to increase his advantage.
With no late cautions and no interferences from lapped traffic, Truex was unable to gain more ground toward Harvick. As the laps dwindled, the handling of Truex’s car started to fade as he lost the runner-up spot to Kyle Busch with four laps remaining. When the checkered flag flew, Truex settled in third and was more than eight seconds behind race winner Harvick.
Despite coming up short in winning for the first time at Atlanta and with his new crew chief James Small, Truex was able to claim his first top-five result of this season. In addition, Truex claimed his fifth top-10 result of this season and moved from sixth to fifth in the Cup Series regular-season standings as he trails Harvick by 87 points.
“The last two or three runs there, we just got too tight,” Truex said. “Not sure what happened. The car was really good. The guys did a great job. Auto-Owners Camry was fast all day. Got our first two stage wins of the year, which was huge. We just can’t seem to get over the hump at the finishes. Just ran out of tires at the end and lost second to Kyle (Busch). I figured at that point, I could see [Harvick] and was just going to give it all I had and see if there was any opportunity, but he was just too good. Just got too tight at the end. Hell of a job by everybody and a good, solid day.”
Next for Truex is Martinsville Speedway, a venue where Truex won for the first time last October and that enabled him to secure his spot for the 2019 Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will air on June 10 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1.