Chicagoland Weekend Preview: Regular season champ Truex tries to open playoffs with win

LOUDON, NH - JULY 14: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 WIX Filters Toyota, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton's 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 14, 2017 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr. won the regular season championship.

Now, he’s focused on taking home the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title by winning the playoffs.

The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing driver will try to start the postseason with a victory in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) – a race he won last year.

Truex is tied with Kyle Larson for the series wins lead with four victories. Three of those checkered flags have come at 1.5-mile tracks – the distance of Chicagoland Speedway.

“No question, we like the 1.5-mile tracks, but we have also been strong at other types of tracks too, including a road race win at Watkins Glen,” Truex said. “You can’t look ahead or wallow in the past, you have to have 100 percent focus on what’s in front of you, and that would be Chicagoland Speedway.”

Truex has piloted the dominant car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series all season. In addition to his four wins, he also ranks first in the series in stage wins (18), top 10s (17), average running position (7.7), driver rating (114.3), fastest laps (976) and laps led (1,648).

In 11 career starts at Chicagoland, the New Jersey native claims one win, three top 10s and a 14.9 average finish.

Due to his lofty playoff point total of 53 – accumulated via his four wins, 18 stage wins and regular season championship – Truex  sits 48 points ahead of Kasey Kahne on the cutoff line entering Sunday’s race.

“Obviously I think it’s a good thing that we have them (playoff points), and I think we could have used them last year with the way the playoffs worked out for us,” recalled Truex. “We need to focus on running as strong as we possibly can and keep the momentum going that we’ve had lately.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and teams have been doing a great job. We’ve got a few little things to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.”

Gaughan tries to cement spot in the playoffs

Only one race separates Brendan Gaughan from the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs.

Currently holding the 12th – and final – berth to the postseason, Gaughan sits 25 points above Dakoda Armstrong on the cutoff line.

BROOKLYN, MI – JUNE 16: Brendan Gaughan (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

But Gaughan knows his position can change in an instant with a poor performance or a new winner below him in the points.

The No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet driver will attempt to transfer to the playoffs in Saturday’s TheHouse.com 300 at Chicagoland Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

If there is a repeat or non-full-time Xfinity Series winner, Gaughan could clinch his spot in the playoffs with 31 points, no matter how the drivers below him finish.

In eight starts at Chicagoland, Gaughan has one top-five finish, three top-10 performances and a 12.9 average finish. He has finished 10th or better in his last three Windy City races.

“Chicagoland is a unique track with the increasing radius corner for both sides and a back straightaway that’s not exactly straight,” Gaughan said. “It’s also a big market for us this weekend, so we’ve got to perform well. Plus, it’s also an intense weekend for us with it being the cutoff race, so it’s a high-pressure race for everyone. The No. 62 South Point team is in the Playoffs as of now, but we need to perform well at Chicago to seal the deal and make the cut.”

Gragson needs Chicagoland win to make playoffs

‘Win and you’re in’ is the name of the game in NASCAR.

Noah Gragson (Photo by Chris Keane/NASCAR via Getty Images)

You win a race and you’re guaranteed to make the playoffs.

Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Noah Gragson will attempt to complete the process in Friday’s TheHouse.com 225 at Chicagoland Speedway (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1). Currently 11th on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs grid, Gragson cannot make the postseason on points.

“I’ve practiced at the simulator at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) and have been working with my crew chief, Marcus Richmond, to prepare,” Gragson said. “Preparation is going to be key for this race so we’re going to be watching a lot of film, trying to stay focused all weekend and not make any mistakes. I’ve never been to Chicagoland so it will be tricky, but as long as I can do my job and be focused, that will be the main goal.”

On the season, Gragson owns three top fives, 10 top 10s and an 11.5 average finish in 15 starts. He has never won in the Camping World Truck Series, but does boast six career NASCAR K&N Pro Series victories.

“I definitely have one goal and that is to win races,” Gragson said. “Thankfully the team I’m with, Kyle Busch Motorsports, provides fast Toyota Tundras week in and week out.”

Race Weekend Preview

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Race: Tales of the Turtles 400

Place: Chicagoland Speedway

Date and Time: Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. ET

Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 80), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on lap 267)

What to Watch for: Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway marks the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs opener. A win in the Playoffs automatically advances a driver to the next round and adds five points to his playoff points total. A stage win earns one playoff point to be added in the following round. … The playoff drivers who’ve won before at Chicagoland are Martin Truex Jr. (2016), Denny Hamlin (2015), Brad Keselowski (2014, 2012), Matt Kenseth (2013), Kyle Busch (2008) and Kevin Harvick (2002, 2001). … Kyle Larson goes for his second straight win after visiting Victory Lane at Richmond. … Jimmie Johnson begins his quest for a record eighth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Race: TheHouse.com 300

Place: Chicagoland Speedway

Date and Time: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 300 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)

What to Watch for: Three spots remain in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs. Right now, the final three berths are held by Blake Koch (51 points ahead of Dakoda Armstrong on the cutoff line), Michael Annett (+26) and Brendan Gaughan (+25). … Elliott Sadler captured the regular season championship at Richmond, but is still searching for his first win of 2017. … William Byron attempts to add a series-leading fourth win.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Race: TheHouse.com 225

Place: Chicagoland Speedway

Date and Time: Friday, Sept. 15 at 8:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 225 miles (150 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 35), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 70), Final Stage (Ends on lap 150)

What to Watch for: Only one playoff berth remains heading in to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season finale. … Right now, Ben Rhodes holds the final points position. He’s seven points ahead of Ryan Truex and 31 markers above Grant Enfinger. … A win automatically earns a driver a playoff spot. … John Hunter Nemechek is the only driver in the field who has won at Chicagoland.

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