Only one man in NASCAR Sprint Cup history - Bill Elliott - has gone longer between wins than Martin Truex Jr. No one has ever had a 218 winless streak between their first and second wins in the season. So you'd have to forgive Martin Truex Jr. for being absolutely ecstatic at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday after clinching victory in this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350 race.
"When I first crossed the line I just was screaming. I don't even know what I was saying on the radio. No idea," he admitted afterwards. "You can't explain the feeling. When it's been that long and you worked so hard and you've been so close and so many things have just - when you think at times, man, is this ever going to happen again, it's just - you can't explain the feeling. It's pretty surreal. Unbelievable."
It's not that Truex hasn't come close to winning many times in the last six years, just that something - everything from bad luck to enemy action - has always acted to deprive him of the win at the very end. Even this week at Sonoma it could have ended very differently, as the example of Juan Pablo Montoya demonstrated. But for once - for the first time in a very long time - the stars aligned in Truex's favour and the 32-year-old from New Jersey was first across the line in Sears Point.
It had been a very odd start to the race, not least thanks to unusually cool and showery weather for this time of the year in the usually perpetually sunny golden state of California. That, together with the usual unfamiliar 'road course ringers' in the field meant for an unusually eventful lead-in to the race, with four cars hitting problems getting out of pit lane.
First there was former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, making his return to Cup racing this weekend with the Phoenix Racing team but immediately finding that the gear shift in the #51 was broken. That forced him back onto pit road for repairs, but the fix didn't last last long and soon after the restart he was back in again, this time to retire. Bobby Labonte was also reporting problems with the #47 JTG Daugherty Racing car. A quick look under the hood fixed an initial problem that had spilled oil all over pit road, but once the race started the engine failed and Labonte was forced to pull over to an unused part of the 2-mile, 12-turn permanent road course and park the car.
"It blew up, dude," Labonte told the team over the radio. "Something in the bottom engine because it had no oil pressure."
The most bizarre incident occurred as the line of cars was coming off pit road, when Paulie Harraka in the #52 Go Green Racing Ford got it completely wrong and rammed hard into the back of Alex Kennedy in the #19 Humphrey Smith Racing machine who had been forced to check up behind David Reutimann as the cars got backed up. The collision did extensive damage to the front of Harraka's car in what was the 23-year-old Drive for Diversity program's Cup début; the team got the car repaired but he spun off at turn 1 five laps into the race and after further repairs was unable to maintain sufficient pace on the track.
After all that it was a relief to get the race started, with road course specialist Marcos Ambrose immediately moving up a spot to depose pole man Jamie McMurray through the first turns. Initially it seemed as through everyone was taking the opening laps cautiously until the rain shower finished its business, but soon it was business as normal with David Ragan spun at the turn 11 hairpin by contact from David Stremme, and a few minutes later a charging Juan Pablo Montoya overbaked his run into the same corner and wheel-hopped the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing #42 car into the side of Kyle Busch who was spun out of ninth place by the contact.
Dropped to the back of the field, Busch tried adopting a Plan B pit strategy to compensate, but another spin after a tap from Carl Edwards followed by self-inflicted injuries (speeding on pit lane and a solo spin after putting his left hand tyres off onto the dirt at the Essess) meant that it was very much going to be his day today as he ended up in 35th place by the finish.
Kurt Busch might not be thought of as a road course specialist, but he's nonetheless a former race winner at Sonoma (in 2011) and looked very much on the pace again this year for Furniture Row Racing. Having started from seventh on the grid, he was soon challenging Ambrose for the lead and on lap 18 the #78 duly slipped past the Richard Petty Motorsport car to claim the honours. He was still out on front on lap 25 when a more significant burst of rain passed over the circuit and forced a six-lap yellow flag (as the Sprint Cup series doesn't have wet weather tyres, even for road course events.)
Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne took over the lead on lap 34 after a round of pit stops, and there was a double disaster for Kurt Busch: not only was he penalised for speeding on pit lane, he was then penalised a second time for speeding while serving his drive-thru penalty which this meant a stop-and-go sanction that dropped him to 38th place and off the lead lap. He'd spend the next dozen laps battling hard just to get himself into the lucky dog position for the next caution to get the lap back. In the end he didn't need the free pass, and instead did it the old fashioned way by catching up to the race leader and getting past him on lap 47.
Keselowski's turn at the front lasted just seven laps before he locked up and ran wide, allowing the flying #56 of Martin Truex Jr. to get past him and take the lead for the first time on lap 40. He was soon joined at the front by his MWR team mate Brian Vickers - and impressive achievement from Vickers who had been required to start from the back of the field after missing the Sonoma practice and qualifying sessions by virtue of competing over at Road America in the Nationwide Series race the previous day.
Truex was clearly trying to eke out his fuel so that his next pit stop would be his last, but that made him vulnerable to others who had already made their stops should be a safety car before he came in. Radio communications suggested that his target was lap 65 but instead he was in three laps earlier than that, and it was just as well he did because just seconds later Danica Patrick - making history as the first female driver ever to compete in a Cup race at Sonoma - suffered a puncture and spun off into the tyres at turn 10.
Jamie McMurray, Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton all stayed out under the caution, with the just-pitted Truex taking the restart in second place but quickly passing McMurray to resume the lead once more. There was a quick return to caution after Tony Stewart hit Denny Hamlin and sent the #11 spinning off and succeeded in literally setting the earth on fire at turn 4A. Along with Kyle Busch's problems, it was proving to be a very strained day for the whole Joe Gibbs Racing operation.
The latest caution had now brought the field within range of making it home on a tank of gas, so Truex pitted on lap 69 with that intention along with several others including JGR's Matt Kenseth and Montoya, and then stalled the #56 to drop him back to fourth behind new leader Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, those three still needed to make their final stops which they finally did on lap 83 leaving Truex once more in the lead ahead of Kenseth and Montoya with Roush Fenway Racing duo Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards now ahead of Ambrose whose handling had gone off leaving him circulating in sixth place.
Truex once again proved he had the car to lead the race, the clean air allowing him to pull out an increasingly commanding lead over the final 25-lap green flag stint. Even that very early final pit stop didn't seem to give him any cause for concern in the fuel conservation stakes as he pulled out an eight second lead over the rest of the field; unlike Kenseth, who despite running an identical Totoya engine in the #20 was struggling to make his final tank of gas and started severely haemorrhaging positions on his way out of the top ten in the closing stage of the race.
As the white flag came out it seemed that Truex's win was assured, with Montoya also comfortably ahead of Jeff Gordon who had put in an impressive final stint after being one of the late-stoppers and opting for a full four-tyre strategy call. That was in contrast to his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jimmie Johnson who had come in at the same time but tried hedging his bets with a two-tyre-only approach that never made a great deal of sense on a road course but which was still good enough to see him through to ninth place at the finish.
Truex completed the final lap and was elated to claim the chequered flag. And coming in second place was ... Not Montoya, but Gordon. The #42 had run out of gas on the final lap and came to a halt out on the track, meaning that the Colombian dropped from second place at the white flag to 34th place in the final classification, a real punch to the gut for the former F1 driver.
"It's just heartbreak," said Montoya. "It's heartbreak for me and everybody on the Target team.
"They do the fuel calculations based on the other runs; and the other runs, when you're stuck in traffic, you can't run that hard," he explained. "Then you get in clean air and they're asking me to run as hard as I can, and I'm doing that, you're going to use a little more fuel. It should have been a little smarter. With five to go you start saving a little bit, just in case. We've got tools to prevent things like that from happening," he sighed.
Gordon meanwhile was delighted to pick up second place, after initially fearing that they'd screed up with a too-early pit stop on lap 24 had likely wrecked their chances. "This is one of those crazy types of races where pit strategy goes all over the place and you never know what might happen," he said.
"We finally had a race car that was fantastic with this Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet. And the pit crew and Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] the rest of the day were just spot-on. Great adjustments. We had a lot of fun out there," he continued. "I knew that we could probably never get to that #56, but boy, we were sure having fun coming up through there."
As impressive as Gordon's run had been, it was hard to eclipse the feat of Kurt Busch who recovered from that early pit stop speeding fiasco to battle his way back onto the lead lap and into fourth place at the finish behind Carl Edwards.
“Yeah, we were fast, - even on pit road, twice!" he laughed. "I messed-up, flat-out. I didn't hit my tachometer right and I was speeding both times. It was one of those where I'm like how does that happen?
"But man, this Furniture Row Chevy was fast," he continued. "Congrats to Truex. When we were running a lap down with him, I was trying to pace myself. I wanted to get back on the lead lap. We did get back on the lead lap when he pitted, but we had to battle hard.
"We came back up through there. You've got to rub guys and move guys and we gave guys room and just made one mistake," he added. "I think we could have gotten all the way up to second, but we never would have caught Truex."
That left Martin Truex Jr. celebrating in victory lane by imbibing a drink of some Californian wine as part of the traditional prize for winning at Sonoma, along with the MWR team and crew chief Chad Johnson.
"Obviously I'm ecstatic," he said. "Just proud of Chad and proud of my team and so happy to get NAPA into victory lane. This means so much to me. They've stood behind me for the first three years of our deal, and I can't even tell you they've been such huge supporters or ours.
"I'm just so proud today, I'm able to put Chad and all my guys in victory lane because they work so hard and they do such a great job and there's been countless times where they deserved to win the race and for some reason it just didn't happen," he added. "That's the biggest thing about today, just proud to get all those folks into victory lane. Obviously for me it's just - you know, it's quite a relief to be honest. I don't know what else to say. Just a special, special day for me. It was a lot of fun today," he summed up.
With Carl Edwards settling for third place at the line, six spots ahead of championship leader Jimmie Johnson, it means that Johnson's lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings has been trimmed a little to 25 points heading to Kentucky next weekend.Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings