A back flip and a sandwich is what Carl Edwards will have after the Coca-Cola 600. After pitting on a caution with 60 laps left in NASCAR’s longest race, the newest driver at Joe Gibbs Racing was able to save enough fuel to win his 24th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Edwards held off former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle after leaders Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr., amongst others, headed to pit road within the last 35 laps. In doing so, the Missouri native has scored his first triumph with Joe Gibbs Racing after recording one top 10 in his first 11 races in the No. 19 Toyota. The victory marks Gibbs’ 117th win in the Cup Series, and gives Edwards a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Truex, who led a race-high 131 laps, which is the fifth largest amount of laps led in his career, finished fifth at Charlotte. The Furniture Row Racing team was in position to contend with Hamlin for the win, but after the final pit stop, he was a lap behind Edwards. However, he continues to sit second in points with 11 top 10s in 12 races.
Hamlin had to be sent to the infield medical center following the race after experiencing a migraine headache in the late stages of the race. After short pitting due to a loose wheel, he finished eighth on an evening where he led 53 laps.
Rounding out the top five were Dale Earnhardt, Jr., pole sitter Matt Kenseth and Truex.
Kyle Busch made his return to the Cup Series during the All-Star Race last weekend, but the Coca-Cola 600 was his first time back in a points-paying event. Busch ran inside of the top 15 early on, but struggled with a loose condition. As the race continued, he moved into the top 10, and evidently cracked the top five – running as high as second during the 600-mile race. He finished 11th, which is considered a victory as he told reporters following the race that he experienced no pain throughout the race.
Jimmie Johnson spun twice during the race. Getting lucky on his first spin – similar to Kansas – he was headed back to the front of the pack. However, on Lap 273, the No. 48 car got loose coming off Turn 4, and hit the SAFER Barrier entering pit road. Johnson finished 40th, 30 laps down.
“We came in with an aggressive mindset to bring an aggressive set-up in the car, drive aggressively and take chances,” Johnson said after the second incident. “We just don’t have anything to lose. Unfortunately, we didn’t get long enough into the race for the aggressive set-up to come into play. Another 30/40 laps we would have had the car right where we wanted it. I just didn’t make it there.”
Running in his final Coca-Cola 600, Jeff Gordon flew in from Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon. Gordon drove the pace car in the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, and finished 15th at Charlotte.
2014 was rough for Martin Truex, Jr. On and off the track, Truex and long-time girlfriend Sherry Pollex experienced plenty of trials and tribulations. However, the struggles of Pollex’s diagnosis of Stage III ovarian cancer have shown their true faith and persevere.
Following her surgery on Aug. 15, Truex had to miss part of the weekend at Michigan. With plenty of support from their NASCAR family, the two have continued to spearhead the Martin Truex, Jr. Foundation, which assists children with pediatric cancer. But with the struggles, Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team have grown closer together.
In his first year with the Denver, Co.-based organization, he earned a best finish of fourth at Kansas in October, and tallied up five top fives. The results, however, didn’t show Truex’s speed, especially late in the year. Leading just one lap on the season, he failed to carry over the success that he had in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing. But he was lacking chemistry with crew chief Todd Berrier, who hasn’t been in Victory Lane since 2007.
Finishing 24th in points in 2014 – the lowest mark in Truex’s nine full-time seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – he had an average finish of 20.2. Entering the season he expected to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup after his impressive 2013 season, and former FRR driver Kurt Busch made it into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs for the first time in the team’s history that year.
After Pollex’s diagnosis, Truex began performing much better. With six top-15 finishes in the final 13 races, compared to eight in the first 23 events, the New Jersey-native showed the team’s potential for the 2015 season.
For the new season, he will begin working with former lead race engineer for the team, Cole Pearn. It is expected that Truex will return to his 2013 form in the new season. The new rules package should go into his favor, which is slightly similar to the setup that he ran during his rookie year in 2007.
Expect Truex and Pearn to have some struggles at the start of the year. The continuing alliance with Richard Childress Racing should play into this one-car team’s favor, but this is a contract year for Truex. He will likely receive an offer to return to the team if he makes the Chase for the Sprint Cup, or at least comes close to making it, which could help build them into a top-tier organization. Having a consistent driver for just the second time in the team’s history is going to be a pivotal factor in their success, especially at the short tracks, which could be a place where they enter the winner’s circle.