The folks at NASCAR perhaps should not look back, because something might be gaining on them. On the other hand, nothing seems to be gaining on Martin Truex Jr.
That was the conclusion from America's biggest day of racing on Sunday, when the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 were staged back-to-back in Indianapolis and Charlotte.
The 100th running of the Indy 500 drew well over 300,000 fans after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway cut off ticket sales to its vast infield and declared the event a sellout. The race itself saw 54 lead changes and a stunning, suspenseful finish won by rookie Alexander Rossi, America's next great hope in open-wheel racing.
In Charlotte, where attendance topped 100,000, there couldn't have been a worse time to stage one of NASCAR's most boring races ever -- unless you were a Martin Truex Jr. fan. The driver for Furniture Row Racing led 588 of the 600 miles. Jimmie Johnson grabbed the lead for all of 100 feet once at the start/finish line to get the only pass of Truex under green that didn't involve pit stops.
It will be interesting to see how TV ratings work out. Even though Charlotte has the better time slot of an evening event, Indy could well come out on top. Whether that means the Indy Racing League can begin to compete with NASCAR for the role of America's preferred racing series is another open question mark.
But there's no doubt the feud that took place between Indy car team owners and the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is finally over for fans. It was the split between CART and the Indy Racing League that enabled NASCAR to steal a march on open-wheel racing for the last 20 years.
The sellout at Indy was the first capacity crowd since the 1996 race at the privately owned track where permanent seating is estimated at 260,000. That was the last race before Speedway co-owner Tony George launched the IRL, setting off a feud that lasted 10 years with Indy car team owners and twice that long with fans of the Indy 500.
For Truex, who missed winning the Daytona 500 by scant inches, the long wait to win a major race is over. After losing last year's Charlotte marathon to Carl Edwards in the closing stages on fuel mileage, Truex won for the first time this year absent any surprise at the finish.
"For a guy like me to win a race like this is a big deal," he said Sunday night.
It was also the first victory for Furniture Row Racing since switching from Chevrolet to Toyota and becoming an affiliated team with Joe Gibbs Racing. Including the near miss at Daytona, coming into Charlotte the Furniture Row team sustained its theme of close but no trophy. Truex had led 417 laps prior to the race before adding 392 to that total.
Were there times when he thought about his past record of missing the checkers?
"There were a few moments towards the end of the race where I was thinking, 'Please, I don't want a caution,'" Truex said. "But you're not really saying, 'What the hell is going to happen this time?' You're trying to stay positive and stay focused and do the things you need to do. But the last couple of laps is a little bit more difficult when you're getting close and you just want to see that white flag. And you kind of have a finger or two crossed on the steering wheel there trying to get to the end."
Near the conclusion of his post-race interview, the driver apologized briefly for stinking up the show. But it was clear that Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and team owner Barney Visser enjoyed putting on a butt-whipping and turning the other teams into also-rans. Chevy driver Kevin Harvick finished second after overtaking Johnson, but didn't even get close to the rear bumper of the Toyota.
The full-bearded Visser, a low-key mountain-man type, is clearly his own man in a garage full of clean shaven team owners. But following criticism for switching from Chevy after initially building his team around the Detroit brand, he was clearly glad to see that first victory for the Japanese company.
"It was the most excited I've ever seen him," Truex said. "I'm pretty sure he even hugged me."
"You know, it's been kind of a steady progress," Visser said of his team's development.
"We started pretty much with nothing and now we're able to gradually attract drivers that could get up front and win," Visser said. "Kurt was big for us. He showed that our equipment was pretty good. And Martin obviously stepped in, and I think he's proven to the whole world now who he is. He's led a lot of laps this year. It's just been steady progress for us."
Visser, a relatively tough taskmaster, insists on the team's location in Denver near his business headquarters and far from NASCAR's Charlotte hub. After the Saturday night Sprint All-Star Race was delayed by rain, Pearn and his crew had only a day and a half to return to the shops and prepare for the Coca-Cola 600, where qualifying ran on Thursday.
The Furniture Row shops are located in a nondescript industrial park not far from downtown Denver just off of Interstate 70. Hundreds of thousands drive by daily without ever knowing the shop is there. The team once asked Visser about putting up a sign. He replied, "Would that make the car go any faster?"
By elevating Pearn to the role of crew chief last year from his job as an engineer and hiring Truex, Visser and his team general manager Joe Garone found the final two pieces of the puzzle to create a squad that is a race contender on a regular basis. Visser's deal with Toyota and Gibbs may be the missing pieces of the puzzle to a championship season after last year's fourth-place finish.
"We want to do better this year," Truex said. "Leading laps is great, but we need to keep winning some more and hopefully put ourselves in position to go for a title."
Sunday's race certainly looked like a championship-winning performance.