Landon Cassill

A quiet moment among a chaotic scene

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JOLIET, Illinois — Amid the celebration, there was a moment of reflection for Martin Truex Jr.

A day after former NASCAR modified champion Ted Christopher died in a plane crash, Truex won the Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Christopher, 59, and a pilot were killed when their plane went down in a wooded area near Guilford, Connecticut. They were the only people onboard.

Truex, who is from New Jersey, raced against Christopher and credited Christopher with helping him.

“I definitely thought about him,’’ Truex told NBC Sports. “It was such shocking news to hear it. I initially thought back to the days racing with him and thought of the respect I had for him and what he means to short track racing in the Northeast where I grew up and where I cut my teeth.

“Racing with guys like him is what gave me the opportunity and skills to move to North Carolina and get hired to drive cars for a living. I flashed back to my Busch North days initially and remembered racing with him at Stafford and New Hampshire and Thompson and all those places we got to race with him.

“Even before I started racing, watching him race modifieds and knowing how much he meant to Northeastern motorsports and the kind of driver he was. He was definitely a hard-nosed driver and somebody you had to respect on the race track or he would show you. Definitely cool to win and say that we were thinking about his friends and family, and hopefully they can find some peace and celebrate him as a person.’’

STEADY AS THEY GO

While a number of playoff teams and drivers had mistakes or misfortune, reigning champion Jimmie Johnson drove a steady race and finished eighth.

It tied for his best finish since his June 4 win at Dover.

Johnson’s run Sunday was not spectacular but it wasn’t hurt by some sort of issue that plagued so many of his competitors (Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon had pit road penalties, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall and had a commitment line violation, Jamie McMurray spun.) He ran between eighth and 12th much of the day and scored the finish he needed. For that, it was a win for Johnson, who is 20 points ahead of the cutoff with two races to go.

“Playoff pressure gets everybody at some point (but) we’re usually not as sensitive as others,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports.

His finish Sunday was his best at Chicagoland Speedway since a fifth-place result in 2013 — when he won the sixth of his seven titles. Johnson finished 12th last year on the way to winning the crown.

HALF FULL AND HALF EMPTY LOOK

Jamie McMurray said he thought he had a fifth-place car.

He finished 10th.

So a loss there, but McMurray spun after contact with Ryan Newman’s car with just under 100 laps left.

“The backstretch is curved here and I think I just didn’t leave Ryan enough room,’’ McMurray said. “I really wasn’t racing anybody. It was a restart and you’re just trying to get all situated. I knew he was there, I could see him. I guess I didn’t leave him enough room.’’

After falling back to 16th for the restart, McMurray scored his third top-10 result in the last five races.

So, it was a win in that sense.

It helped that there weren’t many cars on the lead lap after his spin and that McMurray said he had a good car on restarts.

By gaining six spots — and six points — McMurray is five points ahead of the cutoff with two races to go. He has 2,031 points. Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch each have 2,026 points after Chicagoland.

That’s significant for McMurray, who has never made it out of the first round of the playoffs and entered this year’s postseason with the fewest playoff points (three) of the 16 drivers.

PIT STOPS

Landon Cassill’s 20th-place finish was his first top-20 at a non-restrictor-plate track this season. In the last three races, Cassill has finished 21st (Darlington), 39th (Richmond) and 20th (Chicagoland) … Seven drivers were caught speeding on pit road Sunday: Corey LaJoie (twice), Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Kyle Busch dominates Stage 1 of Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland

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JOLIET, Illinois – Kyle Busch earned the first stage win of the NASCAR Cup playoffs Sunday, leading 78 of the 80 laps in the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

It was Busch’s 12th stage win of the season.

Busch, who started from the pole, went for the jugular right from the green flag, jumping out to a 2-plus second lead in the first 15 laps.

As the race began, Brad Keselowski suffered damage to the right side fender skirt, where it was bent outward. He started fifth and fell to seventh and decided along with crew chief Paul Wolfe that he’d stay on-track until the first pit stop, at which time they’d fix the damage.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. pitted on Lap 29, having suffered right side damage after scraping the wall on Lap 25.

Stenhouse was then assessed a commitment line violation for having two tires outside the edge of the commitment line, which dropped him to 40th (last) position and leaving him two laps behind. By the end of the stage, Stenhouse had climbed back to 30th, still two laps down.

On the first series of pit stops that began after Lap 40, Landon Cassill stayed out to take the lead for two laps before Kyle Busch cycled back through to regain the lead on Lap 47.

Two other drivers were penalized for being too fast on pit road: No. 1 playoff seed Martin Truex Jr. and Austin Dillon.

Busch continued to stretch his lead. By Lap 63, he had lapped 25 of the 40 cars in the field, leaving just 15 cars on the lead lap.

By the time Stage 1 ended, Busch led Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Truex.

Also at the end of the stage, in addition to Busch, there were only 13 drivers on the lead lap.

Kyle Larson wins Cup regular-season finale at Richmond in overtime finish

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Kyle Larson won the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway in an overtime finish.

Larson won after a caution came out just following the white flag. Denny Hamlin, running in third, made contact with Martin Truex Jr., who crashed into the Turn 1 wall (see video below).

Truex had been leading the race until a caution came out for Derrike Cope with four laps to go. Larson was first off pit road. Truex, the regular-season champion, led 198 laps.

“I’ve got the greatest team out here and definitely the best pit crew,” Larson told NBCSN. “That showed tonight. I can’t thank those guys enough. They were money all night long to gain spots. This win is a huge congrats to them”

The win is Larson’s fourth of the year. It’s his first Cup win at a track shorter than 2 miles.

“(Truex) was definitely the best,” Larson said. “I thought I was second-best for most of the run. Would fall off late in the run. Came down to the final restart and I got a good start. Spun my tires really bad and was a little nervous. But we cleared him into (Turn) 1.”

The top five were Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Truex finished 20th.

“We both drove in really, really deep and when I got on the brakes the splitter slammed down on the ground and shot me up the track into him,” Hamlin told NBCSN. “It’s unfortunate. I didn’t want to get into him. He’s a great teammate of ours.”

Said Truex to NBCSN: “Tonight sucked, plain and simple. Just the way it ended up. You’re out there dominating like that and you know your car is not very good on restarts for a couple of laps. Caution for a guy that shouldn’t even be out there. It’s ridiculous. … It’s unfortunate the way the race ended.” On Hamlin: “We talked and I know he didn’t do it on purpose. … I gave him room and he was aggressive on the brakes. That stuff happens.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.

MORE: The 16 drivers in the Cup playoffs

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Kurt Busch earned his third top five in a row … Jimmie Johnson finished eighth for his best finish since winning at Dover in June. He had not finished better than 10th since … Dale Earnhardt Jr. led a season-high 13 laps and finished 13th. He failed to make the playoffs … Daniel Suarez finished seventh for his ninth top 10. He’s finished seventh six times.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Pole-sitter Matt Kenseth saw his race end on Lap 257 after running into the back of Clint Bowyer as the field came to pit road as they tried to avoid an ambulance that was at the pit entrance. He finished 38th … In addition to the pit accident, Bowyer was called for an uncontrolled tire on his last pit. He finished 24th … Landon Cassill’s night ended on Lap 33 when he lost a tire and hit the wall. He finished last.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I’m more mad about all that than I am losing.” – Martin Truex Jr. on the late-race caution involving Derrike Cope with four laps left as Truex led.

NEXT: Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway at 3 p.m. ET on Sept. 17 on NBCSN

Kyle Busch wins Stage 1 at Richmond Raceway

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After a duel with Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch won Stage 1 of the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.

It is Busch’s 11th stage win of the season.

The top 10 through 100 laps is Busch, Larson, Clint Bowyer, pole-sitter Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch.

The first stage had two cautions.

The first was issued on Lap 35 when Landon Cassill hit the Turn 3 wall, ending his night.

The second caution came on Lap 87 when Kenseth locked up his brakes while entering Turn 3, causing a plume of smoke to come from his tires.

After leading the first 89 laps, Kenseth lost the lead when he pitted during the caution. The final restart of the stage came with eight laps remaining.

The second stage of the race ends on Lap 200.

Kyle Larson leads final Cup practice at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. – Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s final Cup practice session at Richmond Raceway.

He led the way with a lap of 120.235 mph.

Joey Logano, who needs to win Saturday night to earn a playoff spot, was next at 120.208 mph. He was followed by rookie Daniel Suarez (119.925 mph), points leader Martin Truex Jr. (119.697) and Matt Kenseth (119.564).

Erik Jones, who had to sit out 60 minutes of the 85-minute session for inspection issues last weekend at Darlington, ran only five laps. He ranked 26th on the speed chart at 117.976 mph. Landon Cassill, who also was penalized 60 minutes of practice time, ran 11 laps in the session and ranked 20th on the speed chart at 118.172 mph.

Truex had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 117.480 mph. Kyle Busch was next at 117.362 mph.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for full practice report