LOUDON, N.H. — Martin Truex Jr. looked untouchable in Sunday‘s Ambetter 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. That was until the No. 19 team went with two tires on what turned out to be the final pit stop of the race.
Starting from the pole, Truex led the opening 95 laps of the race, en route to his sixth stage victory of the season in Stage 1. James Small, crew chief of the No. 19 car, gave up the lead to pit when a caution flew on lap 90 for a three-car accident involving Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell and Harrison Burton. It took 25 laps, but Truex took control of the race again, passing Joey Logano, who didn‘t pit during the prior caution.
Truex went on to win his seventh stage of the season in the second stage — his 16th race that he‘s swept both stages — the most of any driver in the Cup Series. But the turning point of the race came on pit road, following Todd Gilliland‘s solo spin in Turn 4 on lap 206.
Small called Truex to pit road — only Logano, Kurt Busch and Cole Custer didn‘t pit — for two tires. The No. 19 car was one of five drivers to take right side tires, with the rest of the field taking four.
That turned out to be the wrong call, as Truex had a lackluster restart from third position when Kevin Harvick put the No. 19 car three wide. Truex fell through the field to the back half of the top 10. In the process, Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace — all drivers who took four fresh tires — passed the No. 19 car.
“Just didn‘t have anything to go forward on two tires,” Truex said following the race. “The car absolutely hated it. It‘s nothing like it had been all day long and couldn‘t go anywhere, just had to ride it out and get what we could out of it.”
Hindsight always winning out, Small wishes he could take back his call for two tires. Instead, Truex finished a disappointing fourth, albeit his first top-five result since Talladega in April.
“I thought it was the right decision at the time,” Small told NASCAR.com in the Cup garage. “[You] have a [expletive] restart and then you‘re [expletive]. The pace was still there at the end and every time we got up a position, we kept getting faster and faster. I don‘t know, I guess we should have taken four tires.”
Truex paced the field for a commanding 172 of 301 laps. It‘s the most laps he‘s led at New Hampshire in 29 starts, despite leading 39.7% of laps in a five-race span at the track between 2016 and 2018.
The 2017 Cup champion has now led 916 laps at the track, but he is still looking for his first trip to Victory Lane.
“How many times is this going to happen?” Truex pondered. “We were in the lead all day and get beat on strategy, tires or whatever it is. It‘s just Loudon. It‘s the way it‘s been my whole career. It doesn‘t matter how good we are, we can‘t win it.
“I‘ve got beat here on two tires before. Got four, come out [of the pits] third and couldn‘t [win]. I‘ve got beaten by two, beaten by four now. It‘s whatever it is, frustrating. … It‘s just disappointing for us to give it away like that.”
By earning a race-high 53 points, Truex leaped by Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch in points, now sitting fourth in the overall standings. But with Bell winning, the series has 14 different winners in 20 races, moving Truex to the cutline.
Not being in an ideal position, the No. 19 team isn‘t going to change much over the final six races of the regular season.
“It is what it is,” Truex added. “If another guy wins, then we‘re out. It‘s just the way it is. We race every week, do the best we can and try to win races. Lately, we‘ve been capable. We‘ve had cars capable of winning this year.
“We‘ll just keep digging. We‘ve got a great team, the guys at JGR are working really hard right now. The cars are fast, and obviously we‘re getting better.”
Small agreed, “It doesn‘t change; we do the same thing every week. We come to win the race and get as many points as we can. We don‘t need to change our approach. We‘ll keep doing it and everything will be OK.”
But Joe Gibbs, team owner of the No. 19 Toyota, is a little more worried. It‘s hard to fathom that a driver in the top five in points could miss out on the postseason altogether.
“I’m very nervous about it,” he said. “I don’t think any of us would have dreamed when the year started we would have  winners at this point. Yeah, that’s why we were pulling so hard for him to get it, and then, of course, Christopher was in pretty much the same boat. Thank goodness Christopher was able to get it done, but we’ve got to give Martin everything we can give him because we need that car. We need it in the playoffs, that’s for sure.”
The series heads to Pocono Raceway next week where Truex is a two-time winner, most recently coming in 2018.