By Pete Iacobelli
AP Sports Writer
CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. believes big things are ahead, even bigger than his record run at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Truex ruled the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night, leading 588 of 600 miles to set a Sprint Cup record. It was his fourth career victory and first in nearly a year, although he’s come close in several other races.
Truex thinks his single-car, west of the Mississippi program has the potential to win championships, like the very best teams in NASCAR.
“This is one of those dream teams that if you stay together five, six or seven years, you could start doing things like Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have done,” Truex said Sunday. “We want to win races, we want to win championships, we want to win every single week.”
Charlotte was an eye-opening start.
Truex won the pole Thursday night and ran strongly at practice. No one, though, saw this amazing performance coming — Truex led 392 of 400 laps in NASCAR’s longest race.
Usually, Truex said, Charlotte is a hot, grueling affair where drivers jostle with rivals, deal with changing conditions from late afternoon to evening and wonder when the finish will come. This time, Truex was surprised at how quickly the laps passed and how he found all that open space.
Not everything was perfect: Truex had a mid-race wobble that NASCAR greats turned TV analysts Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon speculated was a blown tire. (It turns out it almost was, according to Truex crew chief Cole Pearn.)
There was also a moment after the third restart when Jimmie Johnson briefly moved in front. Truex just swung around the six-time Sprint Cup champion and took control for good.
A host of NASCAR blueblood drivers and pedigree programs followed Truex.
Two-time Charlotte winner Kevin Harvick was second and Johnson third. Hamlin, who won the Xfinity race on this track Saturday, finished fourth with Brad Keselowski next. Kurt Busch was sixth, then Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
None of them had anything to slow Truex.
“It seemed like the 78 must have led the whole race,” Harvick said. “Those guys definitely have had some fast cars this year.”
Just not fast enough to win until now.
Truex was a few feet from winning NASCAR’s signature race, the Daytona 500 in February, where he fell short to Denny Hamlin. Truex led the most laps in Texas and Kansas, yet was waylaid by bad pit strategy in the first one and wheel problems in the second.
Truex came into the season hoping to capitalize on his final four showing in the Chase for a Championship, where he had a chance to take the title at Homestead last November. He said the Charlotte win is the boost he needs.
Especially given the program’s unconventional setup. Furniture Row Racing is based in Denver, meaning it’s far from NASCAR’s Charlotte hub. In fact, Pearn said the team flew back West between the All-Star race in Charlotte last week and the 600. They did refine a few things at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop — owner Barney Visser is aligned with Gibbs — to prepare for the Memorial Day weekend event.
Visser says the obstacles haven’t dampened the fire to succeed that’s steadily grown since 2011. That’s when Furniture Row surprised the Sprint Cup world, with Regan Smith taking the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Truex is the difference maker, Visser said.
“It’s good to have a driver who can get this kind of stuff done,” Visser said. “Martin’s as good as anybody out there right now and it’s fun to watch.”
Truex is also having fun watching a team bond into championship material.
“I feel like our guys are the best there is and we can keep this thing going,” he said. “We can do some special things.”