Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Bristol Motor Speedway issues statement on fan confronting Kyle Busch (video)

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Bristol Motor Speedway issued a statement Monday in regards to a fan confronting Kyle Busch after Saturday night’s race.

The track stated:

“Our security team has investigated a post-race incident where a guest repeatedly confronted Kyle Busch verbally and physically while he was signing autographs for fans. As Busch then prepared to leave in his golf cart, the individual struck the driver across the chest, and at that time, Busch confronted the individual. The two were separated quickly and a uniformed officer pulled the individual to the side, allowing Busch to depart.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports that the sanctioning body was aware of the incident and discussed it with police.

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Bristol recap, Robert Wickens injury update

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and reviews all the big stories from the weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut. They will be joined by Nate Ryan via phone.

On today’s show:

  • This past weekend, all the buzz was around the Busch brothers – Kurt for snapping a 58-race winless streak, and Kyle for enduring a season’s worth of events in one crazy night. We’ll cover all the angles from the memorable Bristol night race. Plus: With Chase Elliott continuing his hot run with a third-place finish, has he become the top challenger to NASCAR’s “Big 3”?
  • The countdown to Throwback Weekend at Darlington continues! Check out Denny Hamlin’s vintage look for the upcoming Southern 500, which draws on his own history in the sport.
  • And we’ll have the latest updates on injured IndyCar driver Robert Wickens, who was hospitalized in a brutal crash that overshadowed Alexander Rossi’s victory Sunday at Pocono.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Denny Hamlin throwing way back to his short track days for Southern 500

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Denny Hamlin will join the ranks of Cup drivers who will drive their own throwback paint schemes in this year’s Southern 500 (Sept. 2 on NBCSN).

But unlike Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Derrike Cope, Hamlin’s paint scheme has never been run in Cup.

Joe Gibbs Racing unveiled Hamlin’s scheme Monday, revealing that his No. 11 Toyota will look like the No. 11 mini-stock Hamlin drove in 1997 when he competed on short tracks in his home state of Virginia.

MORE: Southern 500 paint schemes

MORE: Denny Hamlin’s Xfinity scheme for Darlington

On the car will be the logo for Chesterfield Trailer & Hitch, the company his parents owned and that helped keep his racing dreams alive.

Hamlin is the defending winner of the Southern 500.

Watch the video below to learn more about the scheme and Hamlin’s early days of racing.

Kurt Busch: ‘I haven’t decided’ about NASCAR future

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Where will Kurt Busch race in 2019?

Busch’s current co-owner, Gene Haas, claims to be in the dark about the future of one of his four Cup drivers.

“I really think you need to talk to Kurt Busch and Chip Ganassi and Jamie McMurray. I think they know more than we do,” Haas told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Saturday night, not long after Busch’s first win of the season and a week after it was reported that the 40-year-old driver would leave Stewart-Haas Racing for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 car next year.

After claiming his 30th Cup Series win, Kurt Busch said he hasn’t made any commitments to where he’ll be racing in 2019.

“I haven’t decided and there’s time, that’s in our favor,” Busch told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, has driven for SHR since 2014 and accumulated six wins, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Saturday night’s win snapped a 58-race winless streak for the No. 41 Ford and secured Busch a spot in the playoffs with teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

“Drivers have a right to do what they want,” Haas said. “We have expectations, they have expectations and sometimes you can’t all make them meet up to have a favorable outcome. I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s not that it’s personal or anything, it’s just that this is racing. Kurt’s been with us for (five) years. It’s been an interesting time and we’ve had a lot of good time. We won Daytona last year. There’s a lot of good that came out of it. Just like you make changes to cars, sometimes you make changes to crews, sometimes drivers change. I don’t read a lot into it. I don’t have any animosity. Who knows? There’s the possibility he could be driving with us next year. At the moment, the rumor mill knows all.”

It’s the second year in a row Busch’s future in the No. 41 Ford has been in doubt.

Last year, Busch signed a one-year deal in December after SHR declined to pick up his option in August. Busch said then that he also was exploring rides with other teams and that he had offers.

Following the report about his potential departure for Ganassi, Busch said the week leading up to the Bristol race “was tough.”

“There’s not anything to announce or anything to do,” Busch said. “So we’re going to go enjoy this off week and that’s what I’ve asked everybody to do and we just have to have clarity as we move forward. They know I’m a winner. I know they’re a winner. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

Busch’s Bristol win was significant personally, not just because it ended a long winless streak and got him into the playoffs.

He reached a goal he set for himself 19 years ago at the start of his Cup career.

“I always wanted to get to 30 (wins),” Busch said. “This is a big win for me. I grew up at Roush Racing watching a guy named Mark Martin help me. He was a great mentor. I looked up to him as a racer. He had 33, 34 wins (at the time). I think he might have ended his career with 40. Early on, before I won my first ever race, (I thought) If I can get to 30, that’s a pretty special career. Made it tonight. I’m choked up about it. I really love this win tonight. To have six Bristol trophies is special.”

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