CONCORD — Martin Truex Jr. gave team owner Joe Gibbs another reason to celebrate at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Truex overcame an early flat tire after hitting the wall, then broke to the front on a wild final restart and won the Coca-Cola 600 for the second time in four seasons Sunday night.
It was the perfect cap to a landmark week for Gibbs and his race team. The three-time Super Bowl champion coach was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday, along with two of his race team’s championship drivers in Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. But according to Gibbs, it was Truex, in his first season with JGR, who delivered the program’s biggest moment.
“What was Wednesday?” Gibbs responded when asked if the race victory was bigger than the Hall of Fame.
Gibbs broke into laughter when reminded about his honor. “Obviously, I’m excited about tonight,” he said with a smile.
And Truex provided much of the excitement.
He slid into the Turn 4 wall during the first stage of NASCAR’s longest event, damaging his tire and seemingly putting his chances in serious jeopardy. But crew chief Cole Pearn radioed his driver that things were not that bad and to stay calm and remain focused.
“I thought, ‘We’re done. How we going to fix this thing?’” Truex said. “I didn’t know how bad it was, (but) the guys worked hard, fixed it up.”
That steadied Truex the rest of the way, especially near the end when he drove low during a four-wide fight for the lead on the final restart at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He had an easier time in the 2016 race when he led 392 of 400 laps.
Truex sprang out low and shot into the front past Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and David Ragan, who stretched four across the track. “You just never know what can happen,” said Truex, who led 116 laps this time.
Truex held off defending series champion and Team Penske driver Joey Logano — and again prevent owner Roger Penske from becoming the first to helm winners at the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on motorsports biggest day.
Things began with Lewis Hamilton’s rousing win in the Monaco Grand Prix, which he dedicated to his late friend and champion driver Niki Lauda. Next, Simon Pagenaud gave Penske his 18th Indy 500 victory in a thrilling duel over the final laps with Alexander Rossi.
“For us, it’s the wildest race we’ve ever won,” Pearn said.
Truex was happy to provide his boss another win. “To think a guy can be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the NASCAR Hall of Fame just tells you how special (Gibbs) is, and I’m super honored to drive for him,” Truex said.
Pearn said the car was seriously damaged by the early run into the wall and it took several trips to the pits to fix the issues. Still, in victory lane, Pearn couldn’t believe his team came out on top. “It was crazy to see the car be that good and be that banged up,” he said.
Penske driver Brad Keselowski won the first two stages and appeared to have the strongest car. But he slipped to the middle of the pack during the third 100-lap segment and never challenged for the victory. He finished 19th.
Busch was third, Chase Elliott fourth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. fifth.
Logano said Truex had the faster car in the race. If Logano had gotten to Truex’s outside, he may have a chance to move in front, he said. Truex “knew the same thing,” Logano said. “He did a good job defending his position.”
It wasn’t a completely perfect week for Joe Gibbs Racing. Driver Erik Jones was out of the race after just 22 laps when his car slid hard into the wall and damaged his right front tire. Truex hit the wall on lap 74l while out front with a two-second lead.
NASCAR held a moment of remembrance for military personnel who lost their lives in service as cars were led into the pits and halted. Drivers turned off their engines and fans stood quietly during 30 seconds of silence as part of the Memorial Day solemn ceremonies. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series goes to Pocono next Sunday.