JOLIET – Call the day of Martin Truex Jr. adventurous.
An early move to the lead. An early stop in the pits because of a delaminating right front tire. The necessity to use NASCAR’s “lucky dog” rule to get back on the lead lap. Getting hit on the backstretch by Kevin Harvick for no apparent reason.
That was just the first 125 laps. Finally, after sitting 15th halfway through the race and seventh with 100 miles remaining in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400, the breaks began to fall Truex’s way.
He was running second behind rookie Chase Elliott with 20 laps to go, and the way Elliott was motoring around Chicagoland Speedway, there was no way he’d be caught.
Until, as so often happens, as Elliott suspected would happen, as Truex hoped would happen, a late-race caution occasioned by Michael McDowell’s flat tire and subsequent field of debris in Turn 3 gave hope to any and all of those behind Elliott.
Especially Truex. After he and the other contenders grabbed new tires, he lined up on the outside of the second row for the overtime shootout to decide the issue.
“Getting that fourth spot was the key to winning,” Truex said. “Making the move to the outside was the only one I was presented with.”
The move to the outside after the green flag on the penultimate lap proved to be the winning move. Truex barreled high going into Turn 1, quickly passing Kasey Kahne, who restarted on the outside of restart leader Ryan Blaney, and set his sights on him.
As about 60,000 spectators watched, Truex came beside Blaney on the exit of Turn 2 and passed him in the middle of Turn 3. He held the lead in his Furniture Row Racing-owned Toyota for the final 2-plus miles of the 270-lap test and captured the first race of NASCAR’s playoff series, his third race of the season, and the sixth of his career, .776 seconds in front of runnerup Joey Logano. Truex, automatically propelled into the Chase’s 12-driver round with the victory, has finished first (at Darlington), third (at Richmond) and first in his last three races.
“I’ve never been in a position where I feel we can go anywhere and win,” Truex said. “Right now I feel like any racetrack, any weekend, anywhere in the country, we can win.”
Elliott knew what was coming when the yellow flag waved for the fourth and final time.
“We know that we see late-race cautions way more often than not,” Elliott said. “You’ve just got to be ready for it, embrace it when it happens, suck it up and try to figure out how to make it happen after it does.”
Elliott, still in search of his first Sprint Cup victory, finished third.
“There is no easy outcome,” Elliott said. “You hate to have it happen.”
Truex, while pleased to win and grab a one-point lead in the Chase playoffs, had empathy for Elliott.
“I know what he’s going through,” Truex said. “He did a great job. I wasn’t going to catch him. I was catching him, but not enough to pass him in five more laps. I was struggling to run him down.”
Truex also knew grabbing new tires was the way to go.
“Cole [Pearn, his crew chief] said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘We just ran a long way, we get tires,’ ” Truex said. “Everybody took tires but three guys, and they were sitting ducks.”
“As much falloff as we were seeing today, it made it much easier to get tires,” Pearn said.
Truex was fortunate not to crash early, so severe was the right front Goodyear tire that was coming apart. That set in motion a sequence of events that most drivers don’t recover from, and when he had, along came Harvick, a lap down after bad luck on timing his first pit stop, to give him an unfriendly tap on the backstretch.
“He hit me in the rear as we were going straight for no reason.” Truex said. “The reason I thought it was intentional is because we were on the straightaway. Typically it’s real easy not to run into somebody’s left rear on the straightaway. As far as I could tell, he did it on purpose.”
Harvick was unavailable for comment, making a quick exit after parking his car in the pit lane.
Truex parked in a better spot: