One by one they passed him as the laps dwindled at Watkins Glen International, and Martin Truex Jr. stuck to the plan. In the end, he was the one laughing in victory lane.
Truex held off a charging Matt Kenseth on the final lap and won the NASCAR Cup race on Sunday at The Glen, stretching his fuel to the triumphant end. It was the second road course victory of his career.
"I've wanted to win here for a long time. This is a big one for our team," Truex said. "I never ran 100 percent because I didn't have to. I ran hard enough (on the last lap) to just try to manage that gap."
Truex gained the lead when Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Ford and Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers were forced to pit in the final three laps.
"It's excruciating to go that slow here and try to save that much fuel," Truex said. "The toughest part, really, was just watching the No. 2 pass and go on, and then watching the No. 21 pass and go on. It's like, 'All right, if they don't run out of gas, we're going to look really dumb.' Fortunately, it worked out for us."
Trailing by 3 seconds after saving fuel for several laps, Truex assumed the lead in his No. 78 Toyota when Blaney ducked into the pits as the white flag was about to fly. Despite a bobble and locking the brakes as Kenseth challenged on the last lap, Truex won for the fourth time this season.
"He was so fast, I still couldn't get to him," said Kenseth, who maintained his slim points lead over Clint Bowyer for the final slot in the playoffs with four races to go before the cutoff. "I was racing as hard as I could, trying to make as many passes as I could."
Daniel Suarez was third, the best finish of his rookie season, followed by Denny Hamlin and Bowyer. Pole-sitter Kyle Busch was seventh.
Truex boosted his playoff points total to a whopping 34, nearly double that of second-place Jimmie Johnson (18) as his best season shows no signs of tailing off.
"I feel like with the way we run, coupled with the bonus points, we should be a lock for (the season finale at) Homestead," Truex said. "But at the same time, this is racing and anything can happen."
Busch, who dominated qualifying earlier in the day, was the class of the field early and gained a big lead after the green flag dropped and led all 20 laps of the first stage. By the eighth time around the 2.45-mile circuit, Busch held a 3.4-second lead over Truex, while Keselowski in sixth was 10 seconds behind. It was Busch's ninth stage win of the season.
Busch, who overcame a pit road penalty early in Saturday's Xfinity race at The Glen and rallied to win, had to return to the pits after his first stop to check for a loose wheel and restarted 34th. By the end of the second stage, he had worked his way back through the field and was ninth at the end, in contention again.
Busch encountered more trouble just past the halfway point of the 90-lap race. His No. 18 Toyota suffered damage after a restart when he made contact with Keselowski in the Inner Loop while racing for seventh. Keselowski bounced into Busch and both slid off course.
An irate Busch pitted and Keselowski stayed out. Keselowski pitted a couple of laps later for tires, and when a caution flew he gained the lead for the restart after much of the field pitted.
Truex passed Bowyer for second on lap 61 and caught Keselowski three laps later, passing him on the final turn of lap 64. But with fuel mileage coming into play, Truex started to slow his pace, dropping back as Keselowski and Blaney drove past.
Other things of note at Watkins Glen:
The Mexican rookie won his first stage of the season and notched his fourth straight top-10 for Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 19 Toyota, and racing up front the whole day on a tricky road course added another dose of confidence.
"I knew the second half of the year we'd be more competitive," Suarez said. "All the hard work ... is paying off. Now I feel like we're moving in the right direction. I'm not surprised anymore to be running in the top 10. I just have to keep it up."
In his final race at Watkins Glen, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to drop out when he experienced valve train problems early in the second stage and parked his No. 88 Chevy in the garage.
"It's been a little frustrating this weekend. This doesn't make it much better," said Earnhardt, who finished last. "But, I sure have enjoyed racing here and really appreciate the fans here, and the track and the staff. They've treated us so good every time we've been here, so it's been a blessing."