Martin Truex Jr. held his breath as the laps wound down at the Auto Club 400 on Sunday.
After all, late-race caution periods that bunch up the field have been commonplace at the Fontana race, and that was the last thing that Truex — who was cruising toward victory — needed to see out the window of his No. 78 Toyota.
He needn’t have worried as the race stayed green and Truex, the reigning champion in NASCAR’s top-level Monster Energy Cup Series, won by nearly 12 seconds over second-place Kyle Larson, who won the race last year.
It was Truex’s first Cup victory at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway, and he accomplished it in dominating fashion, winning from the pole position and leading 125 of the race’s 200 laps.
Kyle Busch was third, Brad Keselowski finished fourth and Joey Logano, Keselowski’s teammate at Team Penske, was fifth. Only 10 cars in the 37-car field finished on the lead lap.
“To get our first California win is unbelievable,” Truex said. “I feel like we’ve been close.
“I knew we really had a good race car after the first adjustment of the race,” said Truex, a 37-year-old New Jersey native who drives for the Furniture Row Racing team with Toyota engines built in Costa Mesa.
“The thing just came alive,” he said. “From there, it was just about managing my tires and being smart. Once we got some clean air” by being in front of the field, the car “was unbelievable,” he said.
Although Truex was on the pole, all eyes were focused on Kevin Harvick, the Bakersfield native who was attempting to win his fourth consecutive Cup race. It wasn’t to be.
Harvick started 10th and soon was battling side-by-side with Larson for third. But on lap 38, as the pair started down the back straightaway, Harvick’s No. 4 Ford veered left and struck the side of Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet.
Harvick’s car then slammed into the outside wall and suffered major damage. He was able to continue after repairs but finished 35th, nine laps down to the leaders.
“I was just trying to get a little too much there,” said Harvick, who was coming off consecutive wins at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix. “I don’t know that it’s his fault,” he said of Larson.
“I went down to side-draft [Larson] and he was coming up and we touched, and it just knocked the thing to the right and spun out,” Harvick said.
Larson said “I don’t know if [Harvick] was just coming down to side-draft me or what, but we made contact and it spun his car to the right. You never want to make contact with anybody.”
Larson’s car suffered minimal damage, but he said “we had a lot of weird issues like vibrations and stuff that made us have to restart in the back, and we would have to go back forward.”
“It always seemed like we would get to third or fourth and kind of stall out there,” said Larson, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing. “But it was still a very good day.”
Logano was just behind Harvick and Larson when they collided and the early, hard racing left him a bit confused.
“I don’t know if there’s some history there or something” between the drivers, Logano said, but “it seemed kind of odd” that they raced so close during “the first run of the race like that, and they were door-ing each other pretty hard.”
The last driver to win four consecutive Cup races was seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2007. Johnson finished ninth Sunday.
Truex acknowledged that as the race neared its end and his lead grew wider, he was nervous.
“Those last 15 or 20 laps I was really praying that we didn’t get a caution, because I just didn’t want to worry about something happening and taking it away from us. Luckily it all worked out.”
Other than the Harvick-Larson collision, the race was relatively free of major incidents and only one car wasn’t running at the end, Trevor Bayne’s Ford, due to an accident.
Follow James F. Peltz on Twitter @jpeltzlatimes