WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — It was a microcosm of the 2017 season.
Martin Truex Jr. was denied for a while, albeit early. Then he took control. His counterparts fussed and fumed at each other trying fruitlessly to catch him, and when his adversaries ran out of gas — literally, this time — the Furniture Row Racing driver was right up front, as usual.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader extended his final fuel window to the utmost at Watkins Glen International on Sunday, denied a desperate Matt Kenseth on the last lap and won for a series-best fourth time to pull further away from the field as the regular season dwindles.
Truex’s win improved his series-best pile of playoff points to 34, a growing sum that will be added to his total through the playoffs, buffering him from mistakes and greatly increasing his chances to reach the four-driver finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
In the process, Truex has exploited the midsummer malaise of Kyle Larson, who led the regular-season standings by 18 points over Truex six weeks ago, but is now a massive 122 points behind and in third place. Kyle Busch is in second place, 116 points back.
The regular-season champion will be awarded an additional 15 points when the playoffs begin — more capital for Truex and more room to maneuver for crew chief Cole Pearn. Second in playoff points? Defending and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson.
It seems a Truex team that was bedeviled by odd racing circumstance and pit calls run afoul the past few years has become an easy championship favorite.
Pearn’s not conceding that, not in a one-race final. But he is confident his driver, who finished a career-best fourth in 2015, can reach the final. And he has no plans to coast as Truex had to while saving fuel Sunday.
“I think, yeah, we’re a favorite to make it (to Homestead), for sure, but I want to look back on this year and win as many races as possible, so if we blow up at lap 2 or wreck at lap 2 at Homestead, you don’t look back on your year as a disappointment,” Pearn said. “So I think going into the year we really just wanted to do as well as we could all year and enjoy it and whatever happens at the end of the year, happens at the…