By Rick Minter
Fourteen races into the 2018 Monster Energy Cup Series season, three drivers have emerged as the dominant front-runners.
Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. added his name to the list on Sunday with a victory in the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.
It’s his second win of the season, and he joins Kevin Harvick, who has five wins, and Kyle Busch, who has four, as the only drivers with multiple wins so far this year.
At Pocono, all three were potential race winners, and all three finished among the top four, with Busch in third place behind runner-up Kyle Larson and Harvick fourth, ahead of Brad Keselowski.
Harvick led the most laps with 89 circuits out front, and Busch led 13 late in the race before a decision to pit for four fresh tires on a late caution did not work in his favor.
Ironically, Busch lost last year’s first race at Pocono when he chose not to stop for tires late in that race, and those with fresh rubber outran him.
“I don’t know if it was the clouds or different tires, but those tires didn’t mean anything,” Busch said of his fresh rubber on Sunday. “We couldn’t get back up through there for anything. … It didn’t give any advantage. The fresh air didn’t mean anything today. That was frustrating and disappointing.”
Truex said in his winner’s interview that he wasn’t certain that staying on the track on older tires was the right call when the caution flag flew for debris on the track with 20 laps remaining. But he knew his car had been fast on older tires in Saturday’s final practice session.
“The final restart, really the end of the race just kind of played into our hands,” Truex said. “We decided to stay out there when some guys pitted. …
“Luckily, it worked out for us. We ran some really fast lap times at the end, but the restarts are always, always a question mark. You’re always a little bit nervous just hoping you do everything right and hoping two guys don’t get that bumper-to-bumper kind of tandem thing going and get a run on you.
“We were able to hold them off, and I felt like if we could get to Turn One with the lead, I felt pretty confident we could hold them off, and that was the case.”
Truex acknowledged that Busch and Harvick both had cars capable of winning if circumstances had played out in their favor instead of in his.
“Towards the end of the race there, it was 18 [Busch] leading, we were second, 4 [Harvick] was third,” he said. “We were all just sitting there, couldn’t get any closer to each other, and I felt like whoever was out front at that point was going to be the car to beat. We were all so closely matched.”
Harvick said his fortunes took a negative turn when Busch took the lead by beating him off pit road after a caution flag flew on Lap 126 of 160 for a spin by Derrike Cope.
“We just lost our track position of being in the lead and lost control of the race,” Harvick said. “That is what did us in there. We restarted second and then third and lost a spot on each restart as you start on the inside.
“Our Busch Ford was really fast, and the guys did a really great job. When you are racing the 18 [Busch] and 78 [Truex] you are splitting hairs, and they were just better than us on pit road today.”
Larson, whose runner-up finish was his third of the season, to go with earlier second-place runs at Auto Club Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, said his No. 42 Chevrolet just wasn’t as fast as the cars of Truex, Harvick and Busch.
“Happy we finished second, but needed a lot more to kind of compete with the three guys that ran up front all day,” he said, adding that his Chip Ganassi-owned Chevy was fast. “I felt like my car today was kind of as good as it’s been all year.
“I feel like the Hendrick [Motorsports] guys have definitely gotten better, as well as [Richard Childress Racing] guys. but I feel like I’ve kind of just been a step behind the [Busch, Truex and Harvick]. …
“I think that three of those guys are definitely Head over Heels better than the rest of us, but I think from fourth- to sixth- or seventh- best car, it’s pretty close.”