Truex peaks at the right time, punches ticket to Round of 8 with Charlotte win

By Tyler Head
October 8, 2017

CONCORD, N.C.–Even on what could be called an off weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing proved they’re the team to beat for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

The run to the finish of the Bank of America looked like many other races for the No. 78 in 2017, with Truex leading 91 laps en-route to his series-leading sixth victory of the year. However, prior to that stretch it appeared the often-dominant Truex and company were on their way to a more modest result.

“We weren’t even close to being able to win at the beginning of the race,” Truex admitted.

The No. 78 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota Camry qualified 17th for the race and didn’t make much progress in the race’s first stage, failing to finish in the top-10 and earn stage points. During stage two Truex and crew started to return to form, working into the top five and finishing fourth.

During the final stage, Truex emerged as a contender and battled toe-to-toe with Kevin Harvick, who led a race-high 149 laps, and Kyle Larson. When Harvick and Larson faltered during pit stops late in the race, Truex took over at the front of the field, thanks to a stellar performance by his own pit crew.

“We got the car close, but the pit crew just put us on their backs and got us out front,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “Once we got track position, I still don’t know that we were the best car by any means, but we were able to hold them off and get to victory lane.”

“They’re a huge part of why we won today,” Truex concurred. “They got us the lead. We didn’t pass the leader on the racetrack, we passed them on pit road.

“Once we got that, that was the big advantage.”

Once in the lead Truex never looked back, holding off a charge from a rallying Harvick and the rest of the pack on two late restarts to pick up his 13th career victory.

“Every guy on this team just did a perfect job today and I can’t be more proud of them and at this time of the year is just when you want it to happen,” Truex said. “You dream about days like today. I don’t know if we had the best car, but we damn sure got it in victory lane.”

Chase Elliott finished second, followed by Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray, who rounded out the top five.

With the win, Truex earned five more playoff points to carry with him to the Round of 8, which his victory automatically qualifies him for.

Kyle Busch takes big points hit

With two wins in three races, Round 1 of the playoffs went about as well as they possibly could for Kyle Busch. At Charlotte, Round 2 started about as poorly as it could.

Busch slid into the wall while running second on lap 137, causing significant damage to the right rear of his car. The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team worked diligently to repair the damage as quickly as they could, but the Interstate Batteries Toyota fell a lap down and was never the same.

Busch limped around the 1.5 mile speedway well off the leader’s pace, falling several more laps down and bringing out two more cautions before all was said and done.

To add injury to insult, the damage to the crush panels in Busch’s car allowed more fumes to enter the cockpit of his car, which made a trip to the infield care center after the race necessary.

“I got heat soaked and felt like I had heat stroke just from being inside the race car for 200 laps with the crush panels knocked out of it,” Busch said after being released from the care center. “Obviously, it was my bad, just trying to get a little too much too early in the race and got too high out of the groove and got myself into the fence and tore the right side off of it.

“My guys did a great job trying to rebound and get it back together as much as we could throughout the day. It was just evil out there the rest of the day trying to stay with a relative pace with the rest of the field.”

Busch finished six laps down in 29th and now is just 12 points above the playoff cut line.

“We’re still above the cut line, but we don’t have that cushion that we’d like to have going to Talladega,” Busch said. “We just have to go out and race, race hard and do a good job at Talladega to get through there with still a cushion and then we can go race them and be fine hopefully through Kansas.”

Miscue costs Larson chance to win, again

For the second week in a row, a late-race stumble took Kyle Larson out of the lead and out of contention to win.

Larson was leading at the completion of the second stage at Dover when his car stalled under caution, dropping him outside the top-5 and out of the running for the race win.

On Sunday at Charlotte, Larson was again leading with 65 laps to go, but a long pit stop dropped him all the way to 12th.

Larson attempted to work his way back to the front, but was never able to get close enough to the lead to challenge and was shuffled to tenth on the race’s final two restarts.

“Our rear changer I guess slipped and cost us a little bit, but like I’ve been saying our pit crew has been really good all year so they’ll rebound fine,” Larson said.

Despite the missed opportunity, Larson still has a healthy lead over the playoff cut line with two races remaining in Round 2; Larson is 29 points ahead of Matt Kenseth, who is the first driver on the outside looking in.

One down, two to go in Round 2

11 of the 12 remaining playoff drivers finished in the top-15 Sunday, with the only exception being Kyle Busch.

With all of the contenders finishing so close to each other, the margins between drivers above the cut line and below the cut line remain small. Entering Talladega Superspeedway next week, here’s how the playoff standings shake out:

1.       Martin Truex Jr. (locked in with Charlotte win)

2.       Kyle Larson +29

3.       Kevin Harvick +26

4.       Chase Elliott +16

5.       Denny Hamlin +13

6.       Kyle Busch +12

7.       Jimmie Johnson +8

8.       Jamie McMurray +1

9.       Matt Kenseth -1

10.   Brad Keselowski -2

11.   Ryan Blaney -5

12.   Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -10

After Talladega next week, the series will go to Kansas Speedway where the playoff field will dwindle from 12 to eight drivers.

IMAGES Kyle Stephens/The Racing Experts Tyler Head/The Racing Experts SOURCES

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