Martin Truex Jr. was cruising to victory Saturday in the Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Truex started on the pole and dominated off every restart, leading 172 of the first 215 laps. He’d check out on the field each time by intervals of more than 4 seconds between the second-place car.
“Straight up race-to-race, I don’t think he could have gotten outraced today,” reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch said.
Nonetheless, it was Busch who took the checkered flag after the 267th lap.
The leaders pitted under a green flag on lap 212, but Truex was forced to make another unscheduled green-flag pit stop three laps later when a wheel got loose.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Truex said. “We went around (turns) one and two and I was like, ‘Wheel’s loose.’ I kept telling myself that maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s just shaking because it has tape on it or something stupid. It was loose and I knew it right away. Frustrating, but that’s how it goes.”
Truex, whose single-car Furniture Row Racing team has a technical alliance with Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing team, lost a lap and wound up 14th despite having the dominant car.
Joe Gibbs, the former NFL Hall of Fame coach and co-owner of Busch’s car, considers Truex a fifth driver for his race team and checked on Truex after the disappointing finish.
“It’s a bolt on the inside that bolts the inside plate and the head broke off,” Gibbs said. “When it did, it turned. When it turned, it kept the tire from going on. I just felt so bad for our teammate like that…. They were killing it all night. They were really fast.”
Truex’s misfortune opened the door for Busch to claim his first Sprint Cup win in 17 tries at Kansas. It also gives him a win on 21 of the 23 tracks currently on the Sprint Cup schedule.
With Kansas, where Busch had won a trucks race and three Xfinity races, scratched off the list he is eyeballing May 29 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and June 5 at Pocono Raceway in an effort to become the only active driver with a Cup win at every scheduled track.
“I want to hurry up and get to the two that he hasn’t won at, because he’s hot right now,” Gibbs said. “I know it’s a big deal for him. We know he can win anywhere.”
Busch — who overcome a grisly accident in the Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway last February to win his first Cup Series title in 2015 — has a particular interest in trying to burnish his career record during the next month.
“There’s one person in this room who definitely wants that to happen, because it will bookmark her birthday week, and that’s my wife,” Busch said. “She’s putting the pressure on, I’m sure, that we’ve got to go out there and score those wins in Charlotte and Pocono. I look forward to the challenge.”
Busch’s wife, Samantha, will celebrate her 30th birthday on June 1.
The win was Busch’s series-leading third of the season and the 37th Cup victory of his career. He’s won 162 races across the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks Series — second only in NASCAR history to Richard Petty’s 200 wins in Cup races.
Kansas was a tough one to get.
Busch managed had only two top-10 finishes, none better than seventh, in his first 14 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 1.5-mile tri-oval.
He finished fifth at the 2014 fall race and, after missing last spring’s race as he recovered from the wreck at Daytona, was third last fall, but it wasn’t until Saturday that he really exorcised his Kansas demons.
“Certainly, this is a place that’s been tough on me over the years and probably almost caused me to go into retirement …,” said Busch, who turned 31 on Monday. “But I was just telling (crew chief) Adam Stevens, ‘I guess we have no excuses at Kansas anymore.’”
Busch, who got an owner win in Friday’s Toyota Tundra 250 in the Trucks Series, didn’t pit during the final 56 laps and took a lead he’d never relinquish with 37 laps remaining.
He held off runner-up Kevin Harvick during the final 19 laps after the races last restart after a four-car wreck that took Danny Hamlin and Joey Logano out of contention.
Busch’s older brother, Kurt Busch, came up for third followed by Matt Kenseth, who posted his best finish of the season but remains the only Gibbs driver without a Cup win this season.
Rookie Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five with the best finish of his Cup career.
Columbia native Carl Edwards’ dream of a win at Kansas is delayed at least another five months. He scraped the wall, picked up a flat tire and went down two laps early in the race.
Edwards slipped from seventh to 34th, but battled back into the top 10 before a loose wheel with 46 laps remaining shuffled him back again and he wound up 11th.