Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. turns in the drive of the night at Kentucky — with little reward

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SPARTA, Ky. – It was the most inspired drive of the Sprint Cup season, a furious charge on fresh asphalt and a rock-hard tire that made passing virtually impossible at Kentucky Speedway.

Not for Martin Truex Jr.

After a penalty for passing Kevin Harvick for the lead in the pits dropped his No. 78 Toyota to 22nd on a restart with 67 laps remaining, the Furniture Row Racing driver seemed buried.

Truex was just getting started. He sliced through traffic and gained an astonishing 19 positions over the next 57 laps.

“It was all you can do when things like that happen is keep your head down and dig,” he said. “We dug all the way to third place from the back so that was cool.

Until it wasn’t. That would have been 10 laps remaining when Truex was forced to pit for fuel.

Congrats, Martin Truex. Here’s your 10th-place finish.

No winner’s jukebox to play his favorite comeback anthem in victory lane. No exultation with his single-car team to celebrate overcoming long odds yet again.

The guy going slowest (Brad Keselowski on a brilliant fuel mileage gambit) in the closing laps at Kentucky Speedway got the victory.

The guy going fastest for most of 400 miles wasn’t even gifted with a lousy “I survived the Kentucky repave!” T-shirt after a treacherous Saturday night filled with crashes.

“We came out (of the pits) with the lead (over Harvick), and they took it away from us,” Truex said. “That’s just the way it goes.”

Entering the pits in second, Truex reached the first timing line and slammed the accelerator to speed into his stall to the left of Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet. Because NASCAR measures pit speed by using time over distance, Truex theoretically couldn’t be busted for speeding because his section would factor in a 6-second stop.

“Everybody does it,” Truex said of the practice. “I’ve had people pass me the same way at Bristol and Martinsville. They get to a timing line, and they drive right by you to their pit. So I don’t know why all of a sudden they made an example out of me. You see it every week.”

Crew chief Cole Pearn made the argument to NASCAR officials, but vice president of competition Scott Miller said the rule was simple.

“You can’t pass on pit road,” Miller said. “If you do pass on pit road, it specifically says it has to be to the right when somebody is peeling off into their box.”

Perhaps the only solace for Truex?

On the 1.5-mile tracks that will play the biggest role in deciding the championship, his car unquestionably is the fastest.

“Texas, Kansas, Charlotte, here,” said Truex, who scored one of the most dominating victories in NASCAR history with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “It’s awesome to run good. It’s frustrating we don’t win.”

Truex also led the most laps at Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway but was burned by pit strategy and a freak lug nut problem.

“I feel like I’ve had a lot of them not go the right way last couple of years especially,” he said. “It is what it is. We’ll move on. The guys are building fast race cars, can’t deny them that. We’re working well together. So we just keep digging.”

Kentucky marks the last 1.5-mile track until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins at Chicagoland Speedway in more than two months. There will be five 1.5-mile ovals in the 10-race playoff that determine the title, and Truex will be a bona fide contender based on his performance on those tracks this season.

Just ask the winner Saturday night.

“I look at (Truex), and he drove through the field rapidly toward the end of the race, and I thought that was pretty incredible,” Keselowski said. “Truex’s car and driving style were exceptional tonight.”

But as consolation prizes go, that still wasn’t much.

“It’s frustrating,” Truex said. “We had the car to beat.”