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Long: Martin Truex Jr.'s win has competitors searching for answers

Martin Truex Jr. holds off Kyle Larson to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway for his third victory of the season.

DARLINGTON, S.C. — The only thing good for Martin Truex Jr.’s competition is that they have a few months to figure out how he dominated Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway.

Of course, they’ve having to study the No. 19 car a lot this season.

Truex’s series-high third win of the season again came at a playoff track. He’s won at Phoenix (host of the championship race), Martinsville (penultimate playoff race) and now Darlington (playoff opener in September).

“At some of the important race tracks, they sort of raise their game a little bit,” said William Byron of Truex and the No. 19 team. “They just have overall speed. I think they’ve got the field covered in that right now.”

In a season when Denny Hamlin has scored nine top-five finishes in 12 races, Byron has 10 consecutive top-10 results, and Kyle Larson has been strong at times and pushed Truex late in Sunday’s race, Truex is the clear No. 1 driver in the series.

But with four months until the playoffs start, that could change.

“There’s so much data and analysis available today, you can’t get away with anything,” Truex said, noting that his competitors will study how he led 84.6% of the laps and won both stages Sunday. “Like they’ll all be looking at what I did all day today throughout the summer until we come back here. That makes it really challenging to find those little things.

“I think that’s what (crew chief James Small) and my guys have been so good at is finding little ways to make the cars better.”

Hamlin knows the feeling. He piled up wins last year, while Truex only won once. At one point last year, Truex scored seven consecutive finishes of second or third, but watched others celebrate wins.

“They’ve got a lot of characteristics from what we had,” Hamlin said after his fifth-place finish Sunday. “They’re winning races on, maybe, times they don’t have the best car. But even when they have the best car, they’re winning. I think they’re doing a great job of executing.

“(Sunday) was a dominant performance. They had the best car the second half by a mile. We’ve got a lot to learn from them and they’ll learn a lot of from us. Week in and week out, I think we’re still one of the best. I’m pretty confident we’re going to get it figured out and get our wins when they really count.”

Hamlin, though, was perplexed about how his car didn’t perform as well later in the race, going from what he thought was “the best car the first half to hanging on for a top five at the end.”

Kyle Busch, who followed his Kansas win by placing third Sunday, also wondered how his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate could be so much better.

“I don’t know why there’s a five-, six-, 10-second difference, whatever it is, between us and (Truex),” Busch said. “Just overall, there’s a little bit of a disconnect with where (Truex) was on overall speed. They would drive out on us eight seconds or whatever it was, so I think that distance right there, why can my teammate run eight seconds on me? We should be able to keep the gap closer than that, so that’s where I feel like we really have to work.”

While Byron’s streak of top-10 finishes is the longest streak by a Hendrick Motorsports driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007 — the year Byron turned 10 years old — he knows he has more work to do to catch Truex.

“We just have to get a little more speed and kind of break that seal … to get with him, but we’re right there,” Byron said after his fourth-place result. “Keep plugging away, trying to get top fives and top 10s like we’re doing.”

As for Larson, he also sees progress in a runner-up finish to Truex on Sunday.

“We’re one of the top three teams out there, so I’m happy with that,” Larson said. “We’ve been really good to start the year and meshing very well as a team. Really enjoy working with (crew chief Cliff Daniels) and everybody on the 5 car, and I think we’re just going to continue to grow.”

They’ll all need to improve to challenge Truex throughout the season and in the playoffs.