Sunday evening saw three of the Cup Series’ four championship drivers with a chance to become just the second active Cup driver with multiple titles on their resume.
In the end, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick had to watch Kyle Busch join that club, which Jimmie Johnson had been the sole member of since 2016 until Busch won under the lights at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Truex finished runner-up in the season finale for the second year in row while Harvick brought his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford home in fourth.
Truex thought his No. 19 Toyota, which his team had been refining for three weeks after his Martinsville win, had the “complete package” for a championship night.
“We were really good on short runs, good on long runs,” Truex told NBC. “Just another one that got away. Felt like we had what it took to win tonight, even more so than last year.”
Truex’s title hopes began to fizzle due to human error on pit road. After he won Stage 1, Truex pitted from the lead in the middle of Stage 2 on Lap 120.
When new tires were placed on his car, the right- and left-front tires were placed on the wrong sides.
Truex felt a difference immediately and returned to the pits on Lap 122. The mistake corrected, Truex returned to track the first car a lap down in 13th.
Luckily for Truex, the only non-stage break caution of the race – for a John Hunter Nemechek spin – fell in his favor on Lap 137. Truex received the free pass and after pit stops restarted 13th.
“Just (lost) control of the race there with the issues we had,” Truex said. “Having to restart back where we did and eating up our tires.”
Though he used up his tires, Truex quickly returned to the top 10 in the process and by the end of Stage 2 he was in fourth. But track position and a tight car kept Truex from being able to make a real run at Busch over the final laps.
“We were faster the whole last run, it’s just that we were too far behind to make up with traffic, lapped traffic and all those things,” Truex said. “Just another one that got away. Felt like we had what it took to win tonight, even more so than last year.
Truex said missing out on a title by one spot, two years in a row “definitely stings a little, but the fact that we have one is still really a big deal. It’s hard to win these things.”
Harvick, who was trying to follow-up his title from the 2014 season, lamented a car that fell off on long runs compared to the Joe Gibbs Racing cars.
Harvick led the first 20 laps of the race before Truex passed him. Harvick led twice more for 21 laps.
“We just needed to do something different,” Harvick said. “Really our best chance was to have a caution there at the end and never got one. We just did something different hoping for a caution, and that’s what you’re supposed to do in those late situations like that. Just do the opposite of the cars you’re trying to race, and it just didn’t work out.”
Harvick said with this race’s recent history of having a late caution, “you kind of play towards that.”
Harvick was asked if being the lone Ford driver pitted against three Toyotas had any impact on how the night went for him.
“Not really … it really turns into individual battles,” Harvick said. “I’d even say those guys are all racing for each other and trying to win a championship. Never really looked at it quite that way.”