Terry Renna/AP Photo
Martin Truex Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Darlington Raceway on Sunday in Darlington, S.C.
DARLINGTON, S.C. — Given a break or two here or there, Martin Truex Jr. believes he'd have a monster season. He is pretty thrilled about the one he's had so far, anyway.
Truex capped a standout summer season with his first Southern 500 victory at Darlington Raceway on Sunday night. He had started things with a dominant, record-setting win at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day weekend.
"I'm just humbled," he said.
He knows, though, it could've been even bigger.
Truex was a breath away from taking the Daytona 500 over Denny Hamlin to start the season, and had seven other top 10s this year.
"With the team we have and the way we've been running, we could honestly be sitting here with seven, eight, nine wins," Truex said. "With that said, we've got two (victories) and I really feel like we've got a legitimate shot at this championship."
Truex will certainly be a strong contender when the 10-race Chase for a Championship starts at Chicagoland Speedway in two weeks. He reached the final race in Homestead last year among the last four standing and thinks everyone in the program has worked to improve their chances.
"It's been a good season, but it definitely could be a great season," he said.
It was Truex's fifth career win and the second time his single-car Furniture Row Racing team has taken the checkered flag at the track "Too Tough To Tame."
Crew chief Cole Pearn guided Regan Smith to victory lane here in 2011. Then, the team was a novelty, a fun, fish-out-of-water tale of the little team that won a big race.
Now, tiny Furniture Row is poised for a significant run as NASCAR's best.
"To win two crown jewel races like this in one season is something you'll never forget for sure," Pearn said. "You've got to take the highs when they're here and then get back to work.
Things learned from the Southern 500
Chase chatter: With one race left before NASCAR's playoffs, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray remain the final three winless drivers who would qualify for the 16-team field. Ryan Newman is the first driver out, seven points behind McMurray heading to Richmond next Saturday night.
Smoke will be missed: Tony Stewart will leave Sprint Cup without a victory at Darlington after finished 35th on Sunday night when his engine overheated and he went behind the wall. He was asked to the NASCAR hauler after spinning Brian Scott earlier in the race and when asked what happened, said simply, "He wrecked."
A taste of success: Kyle Larson nearly made it two straight wins before finishing third Sunday. The young driver, who earned his first Sprint Cup win last week at Michigan, led 45 laps and was out front with 38 laps to go. "All in all, it was good to be a contender two weeks in a row," he said.
Throwback city: The Southern 500's second straight throwback-themed weekend again looked like a success. The nostalgic paint schemes like the Matt Kenseth's Tide Ride or Kevin Harvick's Busch Beer car thrilled fans and competitors both. Plus, drivers and teams took things deeper this year with vintage crew uniforms and crazy costumes. "This is such a fun weekend with the throwback stuff," Larson said.
Dale Jr. comeback: Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke at Darlington Raceway about three hours before the Southern 500 — and two days after announcing ongoing recovery from a concussion had ended his season — pledging that he intends to return to the Sprint Cup Series next February at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt said, at 41, his heart is still in racing and he believes he's as good as he's ever been behind the wheel. Doctors told him back during a previous concussion in 2012 he'd return to form and Earnhardt says he's been told that once more. Earnhardt has heard others wonder if it is better for him to walk away instead of coming back. The sport's most popular driver said he's got "unfinished business" to complete.