Martin Truex Jr. turns in strong performance to open NASCAR Playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway
By Rick Minter
Martin Truex Jr., whose No. 78 Toyota has been the fastest car at any number of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races in the regular season, showed on Sunday in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway that he and his team are prepared to continue that dominance through the 10-race run to the championship.
Truex started the Tales of the Turtles 400 from the third position, but was nabbed for speeding on pit road during a green-flag pit stop at Lap 39. Compounding his early misery, he had to make a second, unscheduled stop due to loose lug nuts.
But with the speed of his car, overcoming the early setback was relatively easy.
He finished 10th in the opening 80-lap stage, and then third in the second 80-lapper. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 190 of 267 and led all but one lap of the remainder of the race, finishing 7.197 seconds ahead of runner-up Chase Elliott. Kevin Harvick finished third, ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
Ten of the first 11 finishing positions were taken by playoff drivers, but four finished two or more laps behind the leaders. Pole-sitter Kyle Busch finished a lap down due to mistakes on pit road after he won Stage One and led a race-high 85 laps.
Truex said in his winner’s interview that as the laps wound down, he wasn’t thinking about his bad luck of the past two weekends, when he dominated at both Richmond and Darlington only to see likely wins slip away in the closing laps.
“Last week was last week,” he said. “We got over it by Monday or Tuesday, focused on Chicago.
“Just trying to move forward and look forward each and every week and race one race at a time.
“We knew that this week was a big one. We wanted to come here and just run like we knew we could, not do anything out of the ordinary, most importantly not let the pressure dictate how we raced or what we did.
“I think we did that.”
Truex said that while he’s set to advance to the next playoff round thanks to the Chicago win that automatically assures a berth in the next round, he’s going to continue to push as hard as he can, just like he did last year after winning the playoff opener. Last season, he finished seventh at New Hampshire and won again at Dover.
“I honestly don’t think we change,” he said.
And with this year’s rules, it’s always helpful to bank some bonus points, if possible, although he now has 58, more than any other driver.
Truex said those points are especially important going into a race at a track like Talladega Superspeedway, where a multi-car wreck or other setback could derail a championship run.
Last year at Talladega, Truex entered the weekend on a roll from his previous playoff successes. He started on the pole but blew an engine after 41 laps and finished 40th, putting his title hopes on the ropes.
One bad race shouldn’t be an issue for Truex this year due to his stash of bonus points.
For the rest of the playoff field, it’s a matter of making their equipment faster in hopes of chasing down Truex and his speedy No. 78.
“Obviously have some work to do to get to that bunch that won the race,” Chicago runner-up Chase Elliott said, adding that his No. 24 showed better speed than it has in recent weeks. “Aside from them, I think we were competitive to the rest of the field