Well, the Playoffs are officially underway, with 16 drivers looking for the championship and the newly designed, 68-pound Monster Energy Cup trophy featuring the outlines of all 23 series tracks. One of those tracks is Chicagoland Speedway, where the first race of the playoffs began on Sunday with a decidedly playful Nickelodeon theme of the Ninja Turtles.
Remember all those playoff points that were supposed to carry regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. through the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs?
He didn’t need them—not after what turned out to be a dominating victory in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400. Truex’s fifth victory of the season, his second straight at Chicagoland and the 12th of his career was hardly a cakewalk, even though the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota took the checkered flag 7.179 seconds ahead of runner-up Chase Elliott.
In earning automatic advancement to the Round of 8, Truex had to overcome a speeding penalty incurred on a green-flag pit stop on Lap 39 and loose lug nuts that forced him to return to pit road and restart deep in the field after the end of Stage 1.
Though the victory eased Truex’s progress through the NASCAR Playoffs—increasing his playoff point total to 58—the winning driver didn’t consider it a statement to his fellow competitors.
“I don’t care much about statements,” Truex said. “I’m just having fun. 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.
Playoff drivers claimed the top six positions in the final running order, with Chase Elliott second. Kevin Harvick was at or near the front all afternoon and ran third. Denny Hamlin was fourth, followed by Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski.
Behind Joey Logano, who missed the Playoffs, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson soldiered home in eighth in a No. 48 Chevrolet that lacked the speed to compete with the contenders. Playoff drivers Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Blaney claimed positions nine through 11, respectively.
Elliott was pleased with his best run since Michigan in June. His 42 laps led were Elliott’s most since he was out front for 106 circuits at Phoenix in March. But the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet couldn’t quite catch Truex who was pulling away at the finish.
“Obviously, it would have been great to battle with Martin a little bit more,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have anything for him. (But) from where we’ve been to where we ran today was a major, major step in the right direction, frankly where we need to be, where we deserve to be, to the potential we can run.”
Truex had the speed to overcome his problems on pit road. Others weren’t as fortunate. Polesitter Kyle Busch, who won the first stage handily, caught a double whammy after taking the green / checkered flag at the end of the first 80-lap segment. Eight laps after a restart on Lap 88, Busch returned to pit road because of a loose wheel. On the stop, one of his crewman—from the crew he had acquired from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez’s team to start the Playoffs—was flagged for stepping over the wall too soon.
Busch served a pass-through penalty under green, never got back to the lead lap and finished 15th in one of the fastest cars in the race.
But Busch’s travails paled in comparison with those of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who scraped the wall early, incurred a penalty for a commitment line violation and finished 25th, deepest in the field of all the playoff drivers.
Kasey Kahne simply lacked speed. He ran 21st, three laps down and put himself in dire peril of elimination after the Round of 16.
Kurt Busch, who had shown a decided uptick in performance of late, pitted on Lap 200 with a vibration shaking his No. 41 Ford and promptly incurred a pit road speeding penalty. The Daytona 500 winner finished a disappointing 19th, two laps down and will head for next Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with ground to make up.
Austin Dillon sped on pit road on the same lap Truex was busted but couldn’t overcome the mistake. He finished 16th in the No. 3 Richard Childress Chevrolet, seven spots ahead of teammate Ryan Newman, who ended the race three laps in arrears.
Notes: Kurt Busch, Stenhouse, Kahne and Newman are the four drivers outside the Playoff bubble heading to New Hampshire … Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 17th, one lap down, in his final run at Chicagoland Speedway in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.