Each week NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down the top storylines from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. This week, we break down the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
Truex Shreds the Competition
Martin Truex, Jr. entered the playoff opener at Chicago with four wins in his pocket, the regular season championship, and a boatload of playoff points at his disposal. Things couldn’t possibly get any better for the driver of the No. 78 Toyota, right?
Well, it did.
For the second year in a row, Truex claimed the top spot when the checkered flag flew in the Windy City, punching his ticket to the Round of 12 and giving him more playoff points to use down the road. Despite a margin of victory of more than seven seconds, it wasn’t exactly a cake walk for the New Jersey native.
A pit road speeding penalty on lap 39 put Truex behind the eight-ball early, but with a fast car underneath him, he was able to rebound up to 10th place by the end of the first stage and third by the end of the second. The final stage was all Truex, as he led twice for 77 laps, including the final 55 laps to score his 12th career Cup Series win and fifth of the 2017 campaign.
At this point, Truex and Furniture Row seem unstoppable, with it looking more and more likely that they will wind up being a lock for the Championship Four at Homestead, especially if they can keep doing what they’ve been doing.
“I’m just having fun,” said Truex. “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. There’s just so many people to thank. I’m kind of speechless, but Barney (Visser, team owner), and everyone at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) in Costa Mesa building great engines and TRD Salisbury – Bass Pro, Tracker Boats – just everyone, thank you so much. It’s a dream come true and we’re having the time of our lives.”
Hendrick Motorsports Shows New Life in the Playoffs
Hendrick Motorsports as a whole has been off for nearly the entire season despite getting two drivers into victory lane and three of their four drivers into the playoffs. With their season slump being a big headline entering Chicago, two of their three playoff contenders took the opportunity to step up and show that their organization still has some life in their pursuit of another title.
Leading the way for HMS was Chase Elliott, who posted a second place finish on the day, marking his best finish since mid-July. Just like last season, Elliott and his team found some magic at Chicago, leading 42 laps on the day (second-most all season) and scoring the stage two win before settling in behind eventual winner Truex.
Though it wasn’t a win, it’s definitely a momentum builder going forward for the 21-year old.
“Just a huge step in the right direction,” Elliott said. “Days like this are the days we are going to have to have. There is no way around that. I thought we had a solid day overall. Our car drove good, it had pace, our pit stops were good. I didn’t have anything for Martin (Truex, Jr.). I thought we made the most of our day without some luck I wasn’t going to get around him unless we had a late-race restart or something. I had a solid day and frankly, it is a lot better than we have been doing and we’ve got to have days like this to keep moving forward.”
“I think that’s a testament to this team and the lack of quit that everybody has. This is the time of year to go, and we gave it our all today.”
Likewise, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson had also been in a slump since winning at Dover in early June, but the last couple of weeks the No. 48 team has started to turn things around. Johnson started the day in 14th place before finishing the race in eighth place. It’s not what we’re used to seeing from Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, and the remainder of the Lowe’s team, but it’s a step in the right direction if they want to be serious contenders for championship No. 8.
The Best of the Best
When it gets down to playoff time, it is expected that the drivers in the postseason vying for a shot at the champion will be near the top of the leaderboard and that was true for Sunday’s playoff opener as 10 of the top 11 spots in the final running order went to playoff contenders.
The lone driver not in the playoffs that made it into the top 10? Joey Logano, who many thought would be a serious contender for the title at the start of the season before an encumbered win in April derail his playoff hopes, would finish the day in seventh place.
A Case of the Yips
While 10 of the playoff contenders filled out the top-11, the other six drivers in the playoffs didn’t exactly have a banner day, with pit road miscues, spins, and just an overall lack of speed leading to lackluster finishes.
Key among those was Kyle Busch, who started on pole and won the first stage, but had back-to-back pit road issues relegate him to 15th place at the end of the race, one lap down, despite having one of the fastest cars on track for the entire race. Making Busch’s pit road issues even worse was the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing had swapped the crew between Busch’s team and Daniel Suarez’s team prior to the playoffs and Suarez had not pit road issues with Busch’s old crew.
“We had such a fast Skittles Sweet Heat Camry,” said Busch. “It’s just disappointing that we had trouble on pit road like that. We just never had the opportunity with how the cautions fell to get back on the lead lap. We’ll get back to the shop and talk about it, and really all we can do is move on and put it behind us.”
Along with Busch having his issues, Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, and Ryan Newman just couldn’t find any speed in their respective cars, finishing the day 16th, 19th, 21st, and 23rd.
Then there’s the No. 17 team of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
After qualifying 15th, things went downhill in a hurry once the race started. Battling an ill-handling car, Stenhouse made contact with the outside wall early in the going, forcing him to pit road on lap 30. If a damaged race car wasn’t bad enough, the team was nailed for a commitment line violation, causing Stenhouse to have to come back down for a pass-through penalty and dropping him down a lap to 31st place.
For the remainder of the race, Stenhouse ran anywhere from 31st up to 25th or so, but with 30 laps to go, pit road issues would bite him again as he was caught speeding exiting the pits, resulting in another trip down pit road. From that point on, Stenhouse remained 25th, where he would end the day four laps down.
Not a good way to start your first playoff appearance.
Entering Chicago, the points around the 12th place cut-off for the next round were as tight as can be, but after the completion of Sunday’s race, some separation has opened up between those in and those in danger of elimination.
Truex automatically moves on to the Round of 12, while the points for the remaining 15 drivers are as follows:
- Martin Truex, Jr. (Chicagoland winner)
- Kyle Larson (+49 over 13th)
- Kevin Harvick (+41)
- Brad Keselowski (+35)
- Kyle Busch (+35)
- Chase Elliott (+33)
- Denny Hamlin (+32)
- Jimmie Johnson (+20)
- Matt Kenseth (+13)
- Ryan Blaney (+8)
- Jamie McMurray (+5)
- Austin Dillon (Tied with 13th)
- Kurt Busch (Tied with 12th)
- Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (-4)
- Kasey Kahne (-5)
- Ryan Newman (-7)