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.
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.