Things seem to be coming together for Martin Truex Jr. at just the right time.
Truex won Sunday’s NASCAR Chase-opening Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway in a green-white-checker finish. The victory clinched a spot in the second round for Truex, who took advantage of a late caution to pull it off.
“Without a doubt, it’s the best team I’ve ever had, it’s the best position I’ve ever been in,” said Truex. “I really feel like we have what it takes to win this championship.”
That’s saying something, since Truex advanced to the Chase’s final four last season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He won just one race in 2015, then made his way through the postseason on guile and, ultimately, points alone.
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“I felt like we had the same thing last year, but we didn’t have the race cars,” said Truex. “We didn’t have the speed we have now. That’s really taken us to another level.”
Truex has definitly had the speed this season. Nowhere was that more clear than at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, when he won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading 392 of 400 laps, most ever in NASCAR’s longest race. He also led 588 of 600 miles, the most ever in a single race.
That wasn’t the case Sunday, when it appeared Truex wouldn’t quite have enough to track down rookie Chase Elliott at the end. A caution on Lap 264 brought about a late restart though. Truex, taking on fresh tires, beat Elliott out of the pits during the yellow flag, then roared to the front past Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards to win in overtime. Joey Logano finished second, with Elliott coming in third. Blaney, another rookie, tied a career-best fourth.
Soon after the race finished, NASCAR announced that Truex and Jimmie Johnson had failed postrace laser-station inspections. Neither infraction was considered major, meaning they both will likely only be docked points. Truex won’t be affected since he is locked in to the second round with the victory. Johnson, however, who finished 12th, might lose enough points to drop near the bottom four of the top 12 in points. Those four drivers won’t advance to the second round of the Chase after the first round’s three races are complete.
For Johnson, it was a tough ending to what had been a promising day. A six-time Cup champ, he led a race-high 118 laps before finally being passed by Elliott. Even before learning that his No. 48 Chevy had failed postrace inspection, Johnson was penalized for speeding on pit road, effectively ending his chances. He said he had no idea he was going too fast.
“I’m making adjustments and I was dumbfounded that happened,” he said. “You can’t argue it. Maybe a mistake on our part somewhere, definitely a mistake on my side, but I by no way shape or form thought that I was speeding. I was probably the slowest down pit road all day just to try to avoid it and got nailed. I will soak on it (Sunday night).”
At the other end of the spectrum, the victory allows Truex the luxury of knowing he doesn’t have to worry about his spot in the second round. It’s not something his Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team is taking for granted though.
“Really, all it means is that we’re guaranteed to make the second round,” Truex said. “And the next two weeks we don’t have to worry about flat tires or somebody running into us and wrecking us, getting caught by a caution when you’re pitting, things like that. We don’t have to worry about the things that we can’t control.”
That’s for others to worry about now.
“That’s what gives you the most anxiety in these situations when you’re in the Chase and you have three-round eliminations,” Truex said. “So we don’t have to deal with that for two weeks. All we have to focus on is going to the race track and trying to continue to do a great job and win some more races.”
Said team owner Barney Visser: “I don’t think they’re going to let up at all. They enjoy being in Victory Lane just a little bit too much. They work too hard on the cars to back off at all in the next two races. Martin enjoys running up front. He’s pure athlete. This is what he does it for.”