By Steve Mickey
It has been proven that the Chase is never won in the first race but it can take the pressure of a driver and his team if they can capture that first checkered flag. That is exactly what Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row team did at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday but it took a total team effort and an overtime period before the team was able to celebrate their third win of the season.
Truex got off to the kind of start he had envisioned when he led 30 early laps but soon found himself having to play catch up after an unscheduled pit stop on lap 69 after his Toyota had a right front tire go down. When he returned to the track he was the fastest of the lap down cars and got back on the lead lap after the caution waved once again when Brian Scott spun off Turn 4 on lap 120.
In the closing laps it looked as if rookie Chase driver Chase Elliott was set to win his first ever Sprint Cup race as he had a one second lead on Truex. Elliott saw that lead erased when the final caution flag came out with four laps left when Michael McDowel l had a tire problem.
The caution flag sent both Elliott and Truex on to pit road before the race would be decided by a green-white-checkered finish. Truex’s pit crew gave their driver the stop that he needed as he was able to beat Elliott out of the pits and would be the highest starting driver with new tires.
He didn’t start on the front row as Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards elected to stay out on old tires and try to hold on for the overtime laps. It took less than a lap for Truex to dispatch of those drivers on old tires and recapture the lead as he never looked back on his way to punching his ticket as one of the twelve drivers that will move into the round of twelve in two weeks after races at New Hampshire and Dover.
The win automatically moves him into the second round of three races but his Toyota did fail post-race inspection as his car could not pass the Laser Inspection Station. Previous LIS violations found during post-race inspections have resulted in either a 10 or 15-point point deduction. NASCAR announced last week in anticipation of the start of the Chase that it would update its rules for “encumbered” victory penalties during the Chase. It was believed on Sunday night that Truex would not be in danger of losing the benefits from his win as it was the lowest grade of failure for the LIS.
Jimmie Johnson who was competing for the win Sunday until he was caught speeding on pit road during his last green flag pit also failed to pass the post-race LIS. Until the speeding violation he was the dominant car as he led a race high 118 laps but the late-race pass-through penalty took away what was going to be a great start to his Chase. He ended up finishing 12th that was good enough for him to leave Chicagoland in eighth place in the Chase standings, ten points ahead of the cutoff for moving into the next round. Any penalty that he may receive for failing the LIS could move him down on to the bubble for making the transfer to the next round.
CHASE NOTES: Chase drivers Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson found themselves in a hole at Chicagoland before the green flag ever waved as both drives had to start at the back of the field as Harvick was found to have some unapproved adjustments to his car’s body and Larson had to replace a transmission. Larson finished 18th (14th among Chase drivers) and Harvick finished 20th (15th among Chase drivers). Harvick thanks to his bonus points for winning races during the regular season is 14th in the Chase standings followed by Larson in 15th. They are two of the four drivers now below the cutoff line (Austin Dillon in 13th and Chris Buscher in 16th) but are both are still in a good position to move on as Harvick is one point back and Larson is only two points back.
Event: New England 300
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058 mile oval, 12o of banking in the turns)
Date: Sept. 25, 2:00 pm
Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth