DARLINGTON, S.C. — Steam rose from his car and sweat poured from Martin Truex Jr.’s face, while Denny Hamlin celebrated a Southern 500 victory Sunday night with a burnout.
It likely would have been Truex smoking his tires and saluting the crowd had his right front tire not blown while leading with two laps to go.
Instead, an exhausted and thirsty Truex — his drink container ran out with 100 laps to go and there was no chance during a green-flag pit stop for his crew to give him another bottle — had to settle for an eighth-place finish.
“It’s interesting, (crew chief Cole Pearn) said he wanted to wait two more laps to pit, and with two to go we blew a tire,’’ Truex said. “It’s crazy how those things work out sometimes. Sometimes it’s just not your night, you know. Tonight wasn’t our night.’’
Truex limped around the track for the final two circuits to record his sixth top-10 finish in the last eight races.
“I was so focused on trying to stay off the fence,” Truex said, leaning against his car. “The last 100 laps the groove in (Turns) 3 and 4 was so high, literally just scraping the right rear. I think I scraped it five or six times before I blew a right front and actually hit it. I did the best I could. Just come up short.’’
He took the lead on Lap 326 of the 367-lap race and seemed poised to score his second consecutive win in this event.
It helped that his biggest challenger, Hamlin, missed pit road while leading on Lap 314. The one advantage Hamlin had despite the miscue was that he had fresher tires than Truex, who stopped on Lap 304. Still, Hamlin needed the race to go to the finish without a caution. The race went caution-free the final 100 laps.
The consolation for Truex was that he clinched the regular-season title, earning 15 playoff points. That goes with the two playoff points he earned for winning both stages.
With one race left until the playoffs start, Truex has earned 52 playoff points and could enter the postseason with at least a 20-point lead on his closest competitor. The advantage should help him advance to the second round and likely the third round.
“Bittersweet night,’’ Truex said. “Lot to be proud of. Clinching the regular season is really, really tough to do. To run at the level we have all season long and as consistent as we have, on pit road, on the race track, engines, just the whole nine yards, putting good setups under the race car for each and every race, just really proud for this team.’’