JOLIET, Ill. — After a wild and action packed first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 saw title contender Martin Truex Jr. steal his third win of the season after a late-race caution fell over Chicagoland Speedway.
Truex, a favorite coming into the Chase, had success early in the race but cut a right rear tire at lap 69 while running second, placing him one lap down. Luckily for the Furniture Row Racing squad, however, a caution came out on lap 120 for a spinning Brian Scott to put Truex back into contention.
When a caution flew with four laps left in regulation after Michael McDowell cut a tire and pounded the wall, Truex pounced as the leaders came down for tires, beating late-race leader Chase Elliott out of pit lane as rookie Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards stayed out on the track and took over positions one through three.
On the final restart in overtime, Truex railed around the top side of the race track, passing Blaney to clinch the victory and advance to the next round.
“Oh my goodness, it’s like Darlington all over again!” exclaimed Truex, who led 32 laps . “I guess the racing gods don’t want us leading too much, so they had to make it difficult on us today. We got more races to win and we can win, I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive this No. 78 car.”
“Today we had to just keep digging and there was only one way to go with that tonight. … We’re lucky it happened early and we were able to have an awesome race car all day. We knew we weren’t that good early in the race and we struggled in traffic a bit. (Kevin) Harvick ran into us and bent our fender … and we had to come back from that. All in all, though, it was just an unbelievable day – a total team effort — and that’s what its going to take to win this championship.”
Truex credits Furniture Row’s tight relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing for their continued success this season.
“Everybody from JGR, building chassis and every week during competition meetings, it’s been an awesome relationship, this how we wanted to start it off and it feels awesome! ”
The story of the day was 2014 champion and playoff contender Kevin Harvick, who started from the rear of the field after unapproved body modifications following pre-race technical inspection but was eighth by lap 30.
However, a right front tire issue completely halted his blistering pace, as he ended up trapped a lap down due to a caution during green flag pit stops and finished 20th, one point out of the top 12 in the Chase.
That opened the door for Jimmie Johnson to lead 118 laps, but his winning chances fell away after a speeding penalty during his final green flag pit stop at lap 234, handing the top spot over to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott
Elliott, who led a combined 75 laps, appeared to be in position to score his first victory in the Chase opener but was thwarted in his efforts by the final caution flag that set up the overtime finish — pushing the race three laps beyond its scheduled 400-mile distance.
While Joey Logano snuck through to claim the runner-up position in the end, Elliott finished third ahead of Blaney and Brad Keselowski.
For Elliott, whose hopes have been crushed twice before this season late in the going, he decided to look at the positives he could take away from the event on Sunday.
“I expect it,” Elliott said of the late-race cautions. “Nothing is yours until it’s over. That’s part of life, man. We’ve all watched this stuff long enough to know that these races don’t go green that long and we’ve seen more cautions come out at the end of these races than we don’t. That’s just part of it, so you have to expect it, embrace it and learn to move forward.”
“I felt like we did a good job at controlling the things we could control today and we had a fast car, so that was a plus. I appreciated everybody’s hard work again this weekend, Hendrick Motorsports was strong as a team and that’s good to see. We are proud of that and proud of the run we had today. I hate we came up short, but that’s part of life. We were fast and that’s something to be happy about.”
Defending Chicagoland winner Denny Hamlin, Kahne, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Alex Bowman completed the top 10.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series continues the first round of the Chase playoffs at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 25, with the running of the New England 300.