BRISTOL, Tenn. – Despite having little in the way of dirt racing experience, Martin Truex Jr. took the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series field to the woodshed Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It took Truex’s No. 51 Toyota Tundra the whole of the first stage to come to him, but once his Auto Owner’s Insurance-branded truck got to the front it retained command virtually unchallenged.
Truex edged out Sheldon Creed for top honors in stage one on the final lap of that 40-lap segment, then led the majority of both stage two and the final stage in dominating fashion.
The Mayetta, N.J., native led five times for a race-high 105 of 150 laps en route to his first Truck Series win in his third series start. It was Truex’s first time racing in the Truck Series since 2006.
Considering his relative lack of time on dirt, Truex seemed almost perplexed after he climbed atop his truck on the frontstretch in celebration that he was able to dominate Monday’s race like he did.
“It’s unbelievable, really. I guess they had to put dirt on Bristol to get me back to victory lane here,” said Truex in victory lane. “It’s been a long time. Man, that was a blast. I’m still really surprised (about winning). I wanted to run this race to get more experience for coming out in the Cup race, but when we got out in practice, it felt really good and I was having a lot of fun.
“I just kept working with the guys to try and tell them what I needed, and it all worked out,” he added. “I kept thinking, ‘Man, what’s going to happen next? Am I going to get a flat tire or something stupid?’ This 51 truck is so used to being in victory lane, so there was a lot of pressure there, but I’m glad we could get it done. I’m really surprised to be here, but I had a lot of fun.”
With the win, Truex became the 36th driver to win at least one race in all three of NASCAR’s national series – the NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Truck Series.
In addition, at 40 years and nine months, Truex became the oldest first-time winner in the series since Michael Waltrip won at age 47 at Daytona (Fla.) Int’l Speedway in 2011.
Despite 12 cautions throughout the 150-lap distance, Truex could seemingly pull away from the field at will on every restart.
A yellow with 32 laps left, for an incident between Chandler Smith and Johnny Sauter in turn two, erased a lead of more than two seconds for Truex and lined Rhodes up alongside him for a shootout to the finish.
Rhodes kept pace with Truex on that restart, but when Andrew Gordon crashed into the sand barrels at the turn-four pit entrance, it forced the third of three red-flag stoppages in the race and gave Rhodes one last shot to pounce.
However, Rhodes missed a shift on the final restart and fell back too far to catch Truex at the finish.
“We were running him back down there at the end, but that was just the worst restart of my life,” lamented Rhodes. “I haven’t missed a shift like that since 2013 at Greenville-Pickens (in the K&N East Series. I just made a mistake.
“We did everything that we had to do for big-picture racing; we just got beat by a guy who came in and had nothing to lose. He was really fast today and had a lot of forward drive.”
Young Canadian Raphael Lessard, who led the opening Truck Series practice on Friday, rallied through traffic late to post a third-place finish in his first-ever competitive outing on a dirt surface.
Todd Gilliland and Chase Briscoe finished fourth and fifth, respectively, followed by Grant Enfinger, Zane Smith, Parker Kligerman, Austin Hill and Austin Wayne Self.
While Truex admitted he was surprised at his Monday performance in the Truck Series, his NASCAR Cup Series crew chief James Small was less shocked that the 2017 Cup Series champion claimed the trophy.
“He’s done very little racing, but he told me a couple months ago he thought he missed his calling as a dirt racer,” noted Small with a smile. “Hopefully he can do the same later on today.”
Truex will start his quest for a Bristol dirt win in the Cup Series from fifth on the grid and believes he learned “a fair amount” that will aid him in getting to the front to challenge for his second win of the season at NASCAR’s top level.
“I learned a lot. It was really amazing how much the track changed,” tipped Truex. I think if you have a good car, you can be good all day long; it just depends on what they do to the track. It’s getting hotter, the track’s going to keep drying out and getting slicker … so we’ll see what they do.
“No matter what, though; that was a blast.”
The Truck Series race was the first half of a Monday doubleheader for NASCAR on the half-mile Bristol dirt surface. The Cup Series will conclude the day, with the Food City Dirt Race scheduled for 4 p.m. ET.