In the final stage of Sunday’s Goodyear 400, Kyle Larson turned a Martin Truex Jr. cakewalk into a study in suspense, but Larson couldn’t keep Truex out of Victory Lane in the 12th NASCAR Cup Series race of the season.
Truex swept the first two stages and led 248 laps to win his third event of the season and remain the only multiple winner in the series this year.
But after the final sequence of pit stops, Larson — who gained time by pitting one lap earlier than Truex — closed the leader’s advantage to .170 seconds on Lap 266 of 293 as the drivers worked stubborn lapped traffic.
Larson stayed within a second of Truex until the final few laps, when Truex finally pulled away to win by 2.571 seconds. No previous stage winner had ever gone on to claim victory at Darlington.
“We just had a good balance,” said Truex, who committed to run the top of the track throughout the race. “The car would do what I wanted it to do. I just had to manage those long runs. It was really loose that last run. I was nervous when the 5 (Larson) was catching us. We got mired in some traffic there, and that’s always tough …
“What an awesome team we have. Hopefully, we can keep this rolling.”
The victory was the second at Darlington for the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and the 30th of his career. Truex was elated to win another race with the high-horsepower, low-downforce competition package used at Darlington this year.
“I think the most important part is we are winning with the low downforce package, which most of the Playoff races we run are,” Truex said. “Phoenix was a really, really big confidence booster for us – to go there and win.
“I feel like we’ve carried it since there. We just have to keep this thing going. Guys are doing a really good job all around. It’s so fun to drive race cars like that.”
Kyle Busch finished third, 6.209 seconds back. Fourth-place William Byron was 17.067 seconds in arrears and fifth-place Denny Hamlin was 21.939 seconds behind his JGR teammate, as only nine cars remained on the lead lap at the finish.
Larson lopped two seconds off Truex’s advantage during the final exchange of pit stops but couldn’t pull off a winning pass.
"I was surprised that I was able to get to him,” said Larson, who posted his sixth top-10 result in seven Darlington starts and improved his average finish at the track to a series-best 6.0.
“I caught him, I closed on pit road, was riding and actually had an opportunity to get by and thought I'd stay patient, and he was better on the long run."
As close as Larson made it near the end, the first two stages were an absolute runaway.
Truex’s Camry was decked out in an Auto-Owners Insurance paint scheme. The only other time Truex had used that livery at Darlington was in 2016 — and that was the only time he had ever won a Cup race at the track.
But the nod to 2016 wasn’t the only throwback involved. In harkening to 2016, Truex was recalling a season in which he achieved the sort of dominance he enjoyed on Sunday afternoon.
At Charlotte Motor Speedway, the 40-year-old from Mayetta, New Jersey, put a permanent stamp on the Cup Series with an utterly dominant run in the Coca-Cola 600. Truex led 392 of 400 laps, translating to a NASCAR-record 588 of 600 miles.
By the time he took the green/checkered flag on Saturday to complete a sweep of the first two stages, Truex had a 14.516-second lead over Kyle Busch.
And for much of Sunday afternoon, the race threatened to present a similar outcome — until Larson intervened.
Kevin Harvick came home sixth, followed by reigning series champion Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher, the last driver on the lead lap.
Byron’s fourth-place finish was his 10th straight top-10 result this season.