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Column: Truex Jr. ends 2nd longest winless drought in NASCAR

The month of June should start with the letter “W” for Martin Truex Jr. It was 218 races in coming, but the Michael Waltrip Racing driver finally notched his second career Cup victory Sunday, cycling into the winning pit-stop strategy early to win the Toyota Save Mart 350 at the twisting, elevation-changing road layout of Sonoma Raceway. His previous one and only win? A June ride across the finish line at Dover six years ago, back in 2007.

“It was our day,” said Truex Jr., the lap leader, with 51. “We’ve had a lot of days that were not our day.”

Early on, it was all pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose. The Tasmanian driver with the road-racing pedigree stormed to the front and held onto the premier spot until passed by Kurt Busch on Lap 19 of the 110-lap tour of the northern California vineyard countryside.

Jeff Gordon got burned when the race’s second caution flag came out on Lap 24, just a second before he crossed the commitment cone onto pit road. The 24 car had to restart 37th and its day appeared done. Busch, going for what appeared to be a two-stop strategy, held off pitting until Lap 36. He probably wished he hadn’t. Busch got busted for speeding on pit lane (twice during the afternoon!) and just like that, his race too suddenly seemed over.

With 30 to go, a caution created decisions up and down pit road. The top 15 cars, including leader Truex Jr., wound up staying out on track, gambling that they’d make it the rest of the way, and most importantly, not wanting to yield track position with the race in its latter stages. But a host of cars, headed by Gordon, pitted for fresh tires and fuel. With 25 to go, Truex Jr. took the restart.

Gordon, meanwhile, clearly resurfaced, picking off spots right and left through the field before roaring to a second-place finish. Lo and behold Kurt Busch, long left for dead, crossed the line in fourth place, both cars producing the most remarkable comebacks of the afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson, a ninth-place finisher at Sonoma, holds a 25-point lead over Carl Edwards in the points race, as the Cuppers descend on Sparta, Kentucky, this Saturday night.

Iowa Corn Indy 250

Pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe won his third IndyCar race of 2013, completely dominating the Iowa Corn Indy 250 Sunday. Graham Rahal gave Hinchcliffe the only challenge at the .875-mile Iowa Speedway tri-oval. On the restart following the third caution with 90 laps to go in the 250-lap race, Rahal briefly took the lead but ultimately failed to hold off the stronger car of Hinchcliffe. With 35 laps remaining, interim leader Ed Carpenter was delayed on pit road by a slow tire change and Hinchcliffe easily regained the lead in the cycling change-over.

Defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay then slipped into second place, and with 16 laps left, it was Andretti Autosport — the year’s unquestioned superior team in IndyCar — running 1 and 2. But Hunter-Reay got hung up in traffic with eight laps left, and Hinchcliffe breezed to victory, Andretti Autosport’s fifth triumph in seven races this season.

Helio Castroneves, an eighth-place finisher at Iowa, maintains a nine-point series points lead over Hunter-Reay, as IndyCar picks up in Pocono a fortnight from now.

Read Alan Ross’ article on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013 in Lindy’s Sports 2013 Pro Football Preview at newsstands everywhere.

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