Martin Truex Jr. did it again. Truex fought back from a lap 36 restart penalty, a loose wheel that forced him to pit under green and avoided a big crash late in the going to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway Sunday his second win of the year at Kansas.
His story wasn’t the only drama that played out however as four drivers were eliminated from Playoff contention, with one championship favorite among them.
Truex took the lead for the final time on lap 211 of 267, with his only concern being fuel mileage. A spin by AJ Allmendinger on lap 236 brought a caution and allowed those needing fuel, including Truex, to pit and make it the rest of the way.
“Just couldn’t believe some of the things that were happening and thought there was no way that we were going to win that race at some point,” Truex said. “That first restart violation really caught me by surprise and that hurt, but that wasn’t the last blow we had to take. There was the loose wheel we had to pit for under green and getting a lap down and being able to stay out through that last stage and get that lap back was crucial, without that, we didn’t have a shot. Then we got back mid-pack and had a couple really good restarts to get some track position and then really fought the car through that part of the race and had to make some big adjustments and I felt like at the end we got dialed in pretty good. I’m pretty happy with that.”
Kyle Busch who had dominated earlier and led a race high 112 laps, came into the race facing elimination; his crew decided not to chance it and pitted under green on lap 232; it effectively ended his hopes for a win, but he did rally to finish 10th and moved into the Round of 8.
“I thought we had a good shot to go for the win today and got off on tire strategy a little today,” Busch said. “(Martin) Truex got by us and he was checking out, but was just going to play it out when we pitted and the rest of those guys pitted, where it would all shake out, but obviously that caution came out and it bit us and got us behind. Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out, hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”
Not moving forward is title favorite Kyle Larson. Larson, who was second in points starting the day, saw his championship hopes end on lap 64 when his Chevy slowed while running inside the top five. The crew tried to effect repairs but to no avail; the engine expired on lap 77 and he finished 39th.
For much of the race however, Larson still had hope. Jimmie Johnson spun twice, avoiding contact both times and recovered to finish 11th to take the final transfer spot.
“I guess, I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport,” Larson said. “I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times, most every time at least in the new Playoff format era not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race Playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid Playoffs. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”
Matt Kenseth had a chance but was swept up in a huge crash on lap 198 set off when Erik Jones spun exiting turn 2. Also in the crash was Playoff contender Jamie McMurray. In total 14 cars were involved. NASCAR put out the red flag for 10 minutes 10 seconds, but before they did, Kenseth pitted and NASCAR ruled that seven crewmembers came over the wall, one more then the six allowed. Because he was under the crash clock, NASCAR parked Kenseth ending his race and his Playoff hopes. McMurray was also out.
“I don’t know what any of the rules are,” Kenseth said. “Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one to many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot good to say right now.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was also eliminated. He was never in contention for the top 10 and hit the wall twice. He finished 29th.
Kurt Busch finished second, Ryan Blaney started in the back of the field after failing post qualifying inspection Friday and finished third. Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.
“It was a long day for sure, especially coming from the back,” Blaney said. “We made decent ground before the competition caution.
“The deal that happened Friday, having to start in the back, coming back, having a pretty fast car there at the end really all race shows some pretty great resilience from the Wood Brothers team, and it definitely feels good to be moving on, for sure.”
Chris Buescher was sixth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seventh, Kevin Harvick eighth, Aric Almirola ninth and Kyle Busch 10th.
The top 8 moving on in the Playoffs: Truex, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Harvick, Hamlin, Blaney and Elliott.
Truex now has seven wins on the season including 6 on 1.5-mile tracks. Sunday’s win was somewhat bittersweet for the team however. Saturday night James “Jim” Watson, a road-crew fabricator for Furniture Row Racing’s NASCAR Cup Series teams passed away in Kansas after suffering a heart attack.
“This one’s for Jim,” Truex said on the team radio just after crossing the finish line.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville next week for the First Data 500, the opening race in the Round of 8. Live coverage will be on the NBC Sports Network at 3:00 p.m. ET.