With better luck Martin Truex Jr. would have fewer opportunities to call on a winning personality in a losing situation. He led 172 laps in the Sprint Cup race at the Kansas Speedway on Saturday night and lost after a broken bolt lodged in a wheel.
Truex was so fast in his Toyota he was rendering the outcome of the 267-lap race an afterthought. Then on the final trip down the pit road, a head bolt broke off the brake caliper and lodged behind one of his front wheels during a four-tire stop. Kyle Busch soon took over, holding off Matt Kenseth and then Kevin Harvick to become the first driver to win three races this year.
"I couldn't believe it," said Truex, who is still looking for his first victory of the season. "Went around (turns) one and two and I was like, 'Wheel's loose.' I kept telling myself that maybe it's just shaking because it has tape on it or something stupid. It was loose and I knew it right away. Frustrating, but that's how it goes."
This sounds more familiar than the Star Spangled Banner. Since his first career victory at the Dover International Speedway in 2007, where he led 216 laps, Truex has led more than 100 laps in seven races without winning a single one. Last year, he led 131 laps in two straight races aboard the Chevy entry of Furniture Row Racing and lost both. Two weeks later, he finally won at the Pocono International Raceway - after leading 97 laps.
Maybe that's the secret.
Truex should try not to be quite so dominant. Before the Kansas debacle, he led 141 laps at Texas Motor Speedway before finishing sixth. On the other hand, Truex led just two laps of this year's Daytona 500 and lost to Denny Hamlin by just 0.010 seconds.
"We're going to win races for sure," he said after the Kansas setback. "If we keep bringing cars like that, we're going to win some. It's frustrating when you've had it happen so many times in your career. I swear, you watch guys win races that don't have the fastest car or on fuel mileage and all this stuff and it's like, 'Damn. Someday I'm going to get on one of those or on the other side of one of them.'
As it was, Truex resigned himself to fate once again.
"Usually you can dominate and win, but it's tough and it happens. It's part of racing."
Next up on the schedule is the Dover International Speedway, the home race for the Mayetta, N.J. native. The son of a NASCAR competitor who raced in NASCAR trucks, modifieds and Xfinity Series stock cars with one win to show for it, Truex continues to be an underdog in the Sprint Cup with three career victories midway in his 12th season.
Now driving a Toyota for Furniture Row that is developed in collaboration with Joe Gibbs Racing, he has led a total of 370 laps this year with four Top 10 finishes and one Top 5. Starting from his first pole of the season in Kansas, he ended up 14th after recovering from one lap down after pitting to fix the wheel problem.
While Truex's ill fortune has been running for three seasons -- including a disastrous campaign in 2014 -- it's tough to decide which driver has had the toughest luck this season: Truex or Kenseth, who was leading going into the final two corners of the Daytona 500 before falling to 14th. Perhaps Kenseth gets the nod if only because blues man Jason Vivone has written a song about the Wisconsin driver's inability to convert fast cars into victory called The Kenseth Blues.
"His car is on track," croons Vivone, "but he's stuck in reverse."
Kenseth has one Top 5 and three Top 10s after leading 350 laps this season. Although he was able to briefly reel in winner Busch in the closing laps in Kansas, he was unable to capitalize on a front-row start next to his JGR teammate in the final green flag stint. At least he got this season's first Top 5 finish after finishing fourth.
On the other end of the spectrum is Busch, whose victory made him the hottest driver in the Sprint Cup on the series' hottest team. In this victory, Busch found a way to win once he inherited the lead. Harvick, who vaulted past Kenseth on the final re-start, couldn't find a way past Busch. He got to Busch's rear bumper - and then some - exiting Turn 4.
Busch cut him off at the pass (attempt) with a slide job. "Harvick was making it tough," said Busch. "He was right on my bumper there for a few laps. I kind of pulled slide job off of turn four, cut it a little bit close."
Referring to Busch's Toyota and the slide job, Harvick said, "Hit a big piece of debris and knocked a big hunk out of the nose and knocked the splitter down. From that point on it was tight. Otherwise I would have drove around him. All in all, it just didn't play out that way and they were able to win the race."
Overall, the team of Joe Gibbs, which has won six of 11 rounds this year, is making it tough for those teams used to winning regularly like Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing team, Penske Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. Stout teams like Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports continue to be entirely shut out.
Busch is leading the charge for Gibbs. He has led in all but two races, scored a DNF only once and has spent 679 laps in the lead. For the record, he has won 16 races in his career where he has led over 100 laps. On Saturday night, Busch led twice for 69 laps.
Former Super Bowl-winning coach and team owner Gibbs says he doesn't recall his racing team ever being as dominant as it is now and counts himself lucky to have Busch on his squad.
"To have Kyle as hot as he is right now, it's very hard in pro sports," said Gibbs. "The hardest thing in pro sports is to stay up there every week. Right now it's been a thrill."