Martin Truex Jr. dominates First Data 500, becomes first Championship Four clincher

by Justin Nguyen

The Monster Energy Cup Series‘ Round of 8 commenced with short track action in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway. By the end, Martin Truex Jr. put on a masterclass as he led all but 36 laps to be the first driver to qualify for the Championship Round. Meanwhile, tempers flared for many, including a fight between his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Hamlin started on the pole, his first at Martinsville since 2010. Chase Elliott qualified second, but an engine change relegated him to the rear; Ryan Newman, Corey LaJoie, Timmy Hill, and B.J. McLeod were also sent to the back after failing inspection. Matt Crafton, who was subbing for an ill Matt Tifft in the #36 Front Row Motorsports car, started twenty-ninth; FRM team-mate Michael McDowell surprised with his best qualifying effort of the season and second-straight top-ten start in fifth.

Stage #1

After fifteen laps, Hamlin approached lapped cars. From the back, Elliott began his move, reaching twenty-fifth by lap 15.

The caution came out on lap 27 for debris on the frontstretch after Crafton and Ross Chastain, both fighting for a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series title, made contact. On Twitter, Tifft quipped:

https://twitter.com/matt_tifft/status/1188537875085828102

A poor pit stop dropped Hamlin to fifth, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. received a speeding penalty.

Truex and Blaney paced the grid to the restart. By lap 77, Elliott was in the top ten. Approaching the triple-digit lap counter, Truex’s lead over second-placed Hamlin was at two seconds. Meanwhile, Hill was slapped with a pass-through penalty for speeding.

By the end of the stage on lap 130, Truex led Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Logano, William Byron, Aric Almirola, Elliott, Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Stage #2

Truex continued to lead as Stage #2 began. Meanwhile, Alex Bowman‘s right-side wheel came off, forcing him to pit and fall down three laps.

On lap 177, Daniel Hemric clipped Ty Dillon into a spin for the caution. During the caution, Hamlin once again lost positions following a slow stop, while Elliott fell off due to a broken axle; he eventually went to the garage.

Elliott rejoined the race on lap 237, 52 laps behind. His day continued to worsen when he was penalised for having too many crewmen over the wall, leading to a pass-through.

Bowyer pitted on lap 249, but was slow when he re-entered the course and produced a caution. He was eventually penalised for pitting too soon.

The race resumed on lap 256 with Larson leading after staying out. He could not hold Truex off for the final four laps of the stage.

Blaney finished behind the two, followed by Logano, Almirola, Byron, Ky. Busch, Hamlin, Erik Jones, and Keselowski.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Stage #3

The final stage opened on lap 268 with Truex quickly pulling away. Logano took second from Blaney on lap 286, but Truex’s margin ballooned, reaching over three seconds at the 300-lap mark. Byron eventually passed Logano on lap 326 and narrowed the gap.

On lap 345, Austin Dillon collided with Stenhouse for the yellow; after stops, Dillon suffered penalties for pitting too soon and speeding on pit road.

The green flag waved on lap 351. As Truex continued to lead, byron and Blaney battled for second.

After ten laps of green-flag racing, Busch and Almirola bumped exiting turn four, sending the two sideways on the frontstretch. Jimmie Johnson was collected in the wreck, knocking him out of the race.

“(Busch) chopped me getting down into three,” Almirola said in an interview with NBCSN. “I tried to squeeze in front of him in the spring on one of the restarts and he about wrecked me in turn three. It was returned to him and he didn’t like it, and he ran me up into the curb and we got hooked together and ruined our day.

“We’ve got three more weeks and I’m going to make it hell for him.”

Lap 371 saw the next restart with Truex still out front. Five laps later, the yellow waved after Darrell Wallace Jr. bumped with Bowman, sending the latter into Daniel Suárez.

Another restart took place on lap 381, with Bowman and Suarez staying in the race. Further cautions took place on lap 448 after Bowyer’s left-rear tyre went down and on 458 when Logano spun after racing Hamlin and hitting the wall.

The next green flag waved with 35 laps to go. Five laps later, McDowell spun for the yellow. During the caution, Wallace pitted from tenth to account for a loose wheel.

Final restart and post-race

Lap 376 saw the final restart of the day, with Truex having a strong jump to hold the top spot. Despite Byron’s efforts to close the gap, Truex ended his dominant day with his seventh win of 2019 and first at Martinsville. He led 464 of 500 laps, his most successful day since he led all but eight laps in the 2016 Coca-Cola 600.

The 2017 champion will race in the Championship Round for the third straight year and his fourth since the elimination format’s introduction in 2014.

“I can’t believe we just won Martinsville,” Truex said. (Homestead-)Miami‘s awesome, but we’ve wanted to win here for a long time. The guys have worked so hard. I worked so hard, I used to be terrible here, and it’s just a bunch of awesome guys. […] To get a grandfather clock is pretty special.”

Late in the race, Hamlin and Logano collided. Afterwards on pit road, tempers flared between the two when they exchanged words and sparked a fight that their respective crews had to break up.

“We were having a discussion, everything was civil,” Hamlin began in his interview. “And then like Joey does, he does a little push and then runs away. That’s Joey. That’s scared. He said, ‘You wanna go?’ I said, ‘Yes, I’m here’, but then he runs away.

“I got close off of turn four, it looks like we got together, and it looks like collateral damage. He blew a tire, but man. He would probably say, ‘Eh, short track racing!'”

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