Martin Truex Jr. roars back from mishaps to win Cup playoff opener

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JOLIET, Illinois – The third time was the charm for Martin Truex Jr.

After losing the lead – and the potential wins – in the final five laps of the last two races (Darlington and Richmond), Truex was not to be denied in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener.

Leading 77 of the 267 laps, Truex earned his fifth win of the season, his 12th career Cup victory and the first win of the NASCAR Cup playoffs, capturing Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“This is awesome, man,” Truex said to NBCSN on the front stretch after climbing out of his car. “I’m so excited. This is the playoffs. This is what it’s all about.”

Truex won for the second straight year at the 1.5-mile facility. He’s won four of the seven races on 1.5-mile tracks this year.

“This is the best position I’ve ever been in, you can’t deny it, everything’s going the way we need it to,” Truex said.

It was definitely a statement win by Truex, even though he downplayed it.

“I don’t care much about statements, I’m just having fun,” Truex said. “I’m proud of our pit crew for doing what they did and everyone on this team. It’s important to come here and not let the pressure get to you and I think we did a good job of that.”

After giving his victory lane interview to NBCSN, a smiling Truex was joyously covered in green slime by his pit crew.

“It’s a lot better to watch people get slimed than to get slimed,” Truex joked afterward.

Truex won by 7.179 seconds over runner-up Chase Elliott. Kevin Harvick was third and followed by Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski.

“A much improved day from where we’ve been, which is nice,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have anything from Martin, but to be where we were from where we’ve been is where we deserve to be. It’s nice to see we can do it if all things are good.”

The highest-finishing non-playoff driver was Joey Logano, who was seventh, followed by playoff drivers Jimmie Johnson (8th), Matt Kenseth (9th), Jamie McMurray (10th) and Ryan Blaney (11th).

Early in the race Truex had to make two pit stops to fix loose lug nuts and was also penalized for being too fast on pit road. But he and his team never gave up and mounted a great comeback to take the lead from Kevin Harvick on Lap 190 and — with the exception of one lap (212) that Harvick regained the lead — powered on to victory.

“You have to go out and get it done,” Truex said. “There’s no guarantee the first race of the next round is going to be the same.”

Just as the final stage began, Jamie McMurray spun after making contact with Ryan Newman on Lap 169. The damage was minimal, as McMurray was back in the top-10 with more than 40 laps to go.

Kurt Busch had been consistently running in the top 10 before pitting on Lap 200 due to a loose wheel. He was then penalized for speeding on pit road, dropping him to 21st position, two laps down.

 

STAGE WINNERS: Stage 1, Kyle Busch. Stage 2, Chase Elliott.

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: For much of the race, Chase Elliott appeared poised to earn his first NASCAR Cup win. Even though he didn’t, he still had an excellent finish of second. Also, Brad Keselowski, who has been bashing Toyotas the last week, finished sixth.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Playoff drivers that got off to bad starts included Kyle Busch (finished 15th), Austin Dillon (finished 16th), Kurt Busch (19th), Kasey Kahne (21st), Ryan Newman (23rd) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (25th).

NOTABLE: Jimmie Johnson turned 42 Sunday. The defending Cup seven-time Cup champion continues to remain winless in 16 career starts at Chicagoland Speedway, one of only three tracks he has never won a Cup event at (others are Kentucky and Watkins Glen). … Matt Kenseth’s car was found to have one lug nut loose in post-race inspection. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff faces a likely $10,000 when penalties are issued later this week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Without some luck, we weren’t going to beat the 78 today. We need more days like this.” – Runner-up Chase Elliott.

WHAT’S NEXT: ISM Connect 300, Sunday Sept. 24, 2 p.m. ET (NBCSN), New Hampshire Motor Speedway.