Martin Truex Jr has taken victory in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway; the first race of this year’s ten-race playoffs to decide the championship. The driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry came back from early adversity after two problems on pit-road, but he fought his way back through the field to dominate the final stage of the race en-route to the win.
Entering the first race of the playoffs as the top seed from the regular season, everyone knew that Truex Jr was a likely candidate for the race win at Chicagoland; especially as he won the race a year ago. However, the race was far from straightforward. During the first green flag pit-stops in stage one, Truex was one of many drivers that got caught speeding on pit-road. This earned him a pass-through penalty that put him way behind. He fought back to the top ten by the end of the stage, but he was then forced to the back of the pack during the intermission prior to stage two after his crew failed to tighten all the lug-nuts on his Toyota Camry.
From there, the only way was up for Truex. He slowly began to carve his way through the order, managing to work himself back to the race lead on lap 190. The final stage was where he really left his mark, taking the lead away from stage two victor Chase Elliott and never looking back. A caution in the middle of the stage bunched the field back up, but Truex was able to keep ahead and build a sizable seven-second lead by the time he crossed the line to take the victory.
The win was Truex’s fifth win of the year, his second consecutive win at Chicagoland after winning a year ago and, most importantly, a massive statement of intent for the remaining nine races of the playoffs. He was a dead-cert to make it through to the next round based on his large number of playoff points earned so far this year, but today’s win takes all pressure off and allows him to use the next two races to steal opportunities and put pressure on his rivals. Despite making his statement, Truex brushed that aside in victory lane:
“I don’t care much about statements, I just 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. Every time you go to victory lane, it’s special.
Chase Elliott had a strong first race of the playoffs in the #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He won the second stage of the race and held on to take second place come the end of the race. He’ll be hoping to build on the momentum of his great start to advance through to the next round of the playoffs.
Former Chicagoland race winner, Kevin Harvick, featured briefly at the front of the pack a few times during the race, most notably after stealing the lead from Kyle Busch early on, but his #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion didn’t have the speed to stay there. He would still hold on to take third, with Denny Hamlin and last week’s Richmond race winner, Kyle Larson, completing the top five.
Team Penske had a strong showing at Chicagoland, with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano finishing in sixth and seventh respectively. Of the top eleven finishers in this race, Logano was the only one to not be a playoff contender. After today’s strong result, he’ll be rueing his non-qualification for the championship contending sixteen.
Jimmie Johnson showcased a return to good form in the #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after finishing eighth; the same position as last week in Richmond. This time, however, he looked much more at home in the top ten. As expected, he and the team look to have stepped up again as the playoffs begin, so he may well be a factor in the upcoming races. Fellow playoff contenders Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray completed the top ten; with the latter coming back from a spin at the start of the final stage to score a valuable tenth place finish. Ryan Blaney similarly hit good fortune after coming back onto the lead lap after a late caution before going on to take eleventh place.
The fastest car of the race didn’t belong to the race winner. That accolade surely goes to the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Kyle Busch. The pole-sitter set a blazing pace in the first stage of the race; leading all but two laps during pit-stops to take the segment win. However, it was during stage two that his race fell apart.
In the week running up to this weekend’s playoff start, Joe Gibbs Racing elected to swap the pit-crews of the #18 of Busch with the #19 of Daniel Suarez based on statistics that showed Suarez’s former crew to be better; therefore giving Busch an advantage heading into the playoffs. However, two problems on pit-road occurred in close succession. Following his pit-stop during the first two stages, the field had to bring Busch back under green as the driver felt as though his wheels were loose and that the lug nuts were not tightened. When he came back to pit-road for the fix, his pit-crew then came over the wall too early and earned him a pass-through penalty. These mistakes trapped Kyle two laps down. He’d work his way back to be one lap down, but that was where he would stay for the remainder of the race.
These mistakes trapped Kyle two laps down. He’d work his way back to be one lap down, but that was where he would stay for the remainder of the race. He would come home in a disappointing fifteenth; the definition of an opportunity missed given his dominating pace in both qualifying and the first stage of the race. He’ll at least take comfort in the fact that his playoff points earned during the regular season give him a small piece of breathing room in the standings for the time being.
Further back, it was a difficult start to the playoffs for a handful of contenders. Austin Dillon had qualified his #3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet inside the top ten on Friday, but an early pit-road speeding penalty put him further back into the field. He would finish sixteenth, with fellow contenders Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne a few positions back in nineteenth and twenty-first. Dillon’s team-mate Ryan Newman struggled with the setup of his #31 car for much of the day. He would finish twenty-third, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr taking the sad accolade of being the lowest placed playoff driver after being hit with a pit-entry commitment cone violation early on.
The playoffs for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series continue in earnest next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Truex Jr will be gunning for another win to put pressure on his rivals who will be chomping at the bit to try and solidify their place in the next round.
2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – Chicagoland – Race Results:
[table id=2496 /]
(P) = Playoff contender