FONTANA, Calif. — The 2018 Martin Truex Jr. didn’t look like the 2017 Martin Truex Jr. for the first four races of the season.
He had relinquished the throne as the most dominant driver to Kevin Harvick, who won back-to-back-to-back races following the season-opening Daytona 500.
Truex could see him in those races, he just couldn’t catch him.
The Furniture Row Racing driver didn’t have to catch Harvick on Sunday, as he started on the pole, was ahead of the Harvick crash on Lap 38 and used a strong, long-run car to lead 125 of the 200 laps to capture the Auto Club 400.
Truex’s margin of victory — 11.685 seconds — was the largest since 2009, as the final 68 laps went green at Auto Club Speedway.
“I don’t really worry about who’s winning, who else is fast,” Truex said. “Obviously, the 4 [of Harvick] has been quick. They’ve got a great team. Kevin is an awesome driver. They had it going on the last couple weeks.
“As we seen today, we can put together a run like that, as well. I think most of all it feels good, we’re able to find that speed we’ve been looking for the last couple weeks. Like I said, we’ve been close, but not quite close enough. We knew we were off a bit, so it wasn’t a surprise that we weren’t winning.”
Harvick’s wreck came when trying to side-draft Kyle Larson batting for third on Lap 38. Yes, Lap 38.
After he got out of the car, Harvick admitted he tried for too much too soon. He had the best long-run car in practice Saturday but started 10th and just got impatient with 22 laps left in the stage.
“That’s my fault for coming down the race track right there and trying to side-draft, and then as we touch it, just came back up the race track,” he said. “I was just trying to get a little too much right there.”
Harvick made the mistake thinking about potential points for winning a stage. With each stage win, a driver earns a playoff point that can carry through the first three rounds of the postseason and can mean the difference when it comes to advancing.
But with the accident and 35th-place finish resulting in Harvick’s falling from first to eighth in the standings — Truex out-pointed him 60-2 on the day — he potentially cost himself the regular-season title. Drivers in the top 10 in the regular-season standings earn points on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.
“I wasn’t surprised that we were racing that hard, or he was racing me as hard as he was to try to hold me off,” Larson said. “He had pitted a lap before me. … He was just trying to hold me off, race me hard to maybe burn my stuff up, then he could stay in front of me, not have to worry about me 10, 15 laps later, when he would be better than me.
“I was actually having a lot of fun racing like that because this place is really cool, you can just kind of go wherever.”
Larson admitted he was frustrated when it first happened.
“I was pretty amped up on the radio there right after just because I felt like at the time maybe he let his frustration build and kind of just ran into me down the backstretch, wrecked himself,” Larson said. “I thought he would be mad at me or something like that, which I knew I didn’t do anything wrong at the time.
“A couple minutes later, they let me know he was taking the blame for it on the radio, which was nice. I was able to chill out some.”
Larson rebounded from that accident but couldn’t overcome everything thrown at him Sunday. Truex won by avoiding mistakes and bad luck that plagued the three drivers who theoretically could have competed with him Sunday.
Kyle Busch might not have had anything for Truex on the long run, but his fate was sealed when his team accidentally loosened the car up on a pit stop with an adjustment instead of tightening the car. He finished third behind Truex and Larson.
“We weren’t going to have anything for the 78 [of Truex] regardless, I don’t think,” Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens said. “Could we have stayed ahead of the 42 [of Larson]? Probably. I just don’t think we had anything for the 78 today.
“[That mistake] happens a couple of times a year. It happened twice last year. It just happens. … It was just one of them things. It had no bearing on us winning the race. Did it have a bearing on second to third? Probably. But who gives a crap at that point?”
Larson didn’t feel the wreck ruined his day, as he drove through the field a couple of times, including once from a self-inflicted loose wheel following a pit stop. He also had a strange part break — the outer half of a bridge duct on the right front-brake caliper came off and got stuck between the wheel and the hub on a pit stop.
Crew chief Chad Johnston said it was either a part failure or the team damaged it when changing tires.
Truex — who had finishes of fifth, fourth and fifth in the three races Harvick won — had no such issues. That wasn’t always the case last year, when various issues kept him from winning double-digit races and “settling” for eight victories and the title.
If his team can continue to improve, well, y’all saw how 2017 went.
“After the beginning of the season there, watching Harvick run away with everything, I wasn’t sure where we were at,” Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser said. “I wish he would have not had the problems he had today and we could have run him again.
“We had something for him today. We won’t know for a few weeks here where we’re at.”
Last year, Truex virtually guaranteed himself a spot in the championship round, earning 53 playoff points in the regular season and 16 more in the first six playoff races.
“Winning the regular season for us last year, it’s a big confidence-booster,” Truex said. “Honestly, it means a lot to a team. It’s so difficult to do, to win. … It’s a huge accomplishment to win the regular-season points. It’s so difficult to come to all these different race tracks, be consistent week after week, deal with all the things that racing can throw at you.
“It’s something that, absolutely, we’re looking forward to doing that. Like I said, we’ve got the consistency so far, which has been really good. Hopefully, we can continue that.”
Harvick never got a chance to race him. Why race so hard so early?
“It’s a race,” he said.
Maybe winning four in a row is too much for anyone to ask.
“It’s not too much to ask,” Harvick said. “That was just a dumb mistake on my part, so it wasn’t too much to ask. The race car was there. It was just a mistake.”