The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began on Sunday in Joliet, Illinois at the Chicagoland Speedway with the Tales of the Turtles 400. The 1.5-mile track has served as the playoff opener since 2011. Martin Truex Jr., who entered the playoffs as the points leader, started the ten-race battle on a high note with a dominating third stage en route to the victory.
Driver drama was present even before the first playoff race took place. After the Toyotas of Kyle Busch, Daniel Suárez, Denny Hamlin, and Truex swept the top four positions in Friday practice, Ford’s Brad Keselowski tweeted on the matter and said, “We are all in for a rude awakening.
Haven’t seen NASCAR let a manufacturer get this far ahead since the 70s”. Busch, who had his share of run-ins with Keselowski over the years, tweeted at Keselowski: “😭 STFU”, which prompted Keselowski to remark, “It’s 2017. When you’re about to lose an argument you call people names rather than face facts.”
“(Toyota’s) got a lot going for them right now,” Keselowski said in a pre-qualifying interview. “It’s not really fair of me to say where that is. It’s really NASCAR and their team’s job. It is still pretty obvious. You can BS through it any way you want, but it’s there and we know we’re going to have to out-execute ’em and we need a little bit of luck, because at this point in time, their cars have way more speed.”
True to Keselowski’s words, a pair of Toyotas in Busch and Hamlin comprised the front row for the green flag. Busch led the race early, dominating the first stage. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brushed the wall on lap 25, causing him to pit four laps later before he was penalized for a commitment line violation, forcing him to take a pass-through penalty. Jimmie Johnson pitted on lap 39 for a loose wheel, with others following; more drivers suffered from penalties as Truex, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie, and Matt DiBenedetto were punished for speeding on pit road. When Busch pitted, Landon Cassill led laps until Busch was cycled back into the lead.
By lap 64, only 15 cars were on the lead lap. Busch would win his 12th stage of the season, with Harvick, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Suárez, and Truex rounding out the top ten.
Stage #2 began on lap 88 with Busch and Kevin Harvick leading the way. Harvick took off in turn two to lead, while Busch visited pit road for a loose wheel after ten laps. Jones followed right-rear tire problems. To add to Busch’s woes, he was penalized for having his pit crew over the wall too soon, which dropped him to 30th and two laps down. On lap 122, Kenseth pitted to begin green flag stops, with Truex, Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne, LaJoie, A.J. Allmendinger, Harvick, Elliott, Larson, Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, and Suárez following. Elliott was able to beat Harvick off pit road to become the new leader, going on to win his third stage. Behind him were Harvick, Truex, Larson, Keselowski, Hamlin, Logano, Kurt Busch, Kenseth, and McMurray.
The final stage started on lap 168 as Harvick led early. Moments later, McMurray – running 11th – made contact with Ryan Newman on the backstretch and spun to bring out the caution. A restart took place on lap 173 with Harvick and Elliott leading the field to the green. As Harvick pulled away, Elliott battled with Keselowski for 2nd.
On lap 189, Truex caught up to Harvick and passed him for the lead. Harvick continue to lose spots as he battled a loose car, with Elliott passing him. Jones spun on lap 209 to put out a yellow flag; he was later penalized for having too many men over the wall.
The last restart of the race occurred with 52 laps to go. Truex proved to be too dominant for Elliott and led the remainder of the race for his fourth win of the season at a 1.5-miler. Elliott was forced to settle for 2nd, followed by fellow playoff drivers Harvick, Hamlin, Larson, and Keselowski. Logano was the highest-finishing non-playoff driver at 7th, with Johnson, Kenseth, and McMurray also ending their days with top-ten finishes. For the third straight Chicagoland race in a row, every car finished the race.
“I’m so excited. This is what it’s all about,” Truex stated. “This team, my team’s unbelievable. So proud of everybody. The speeding penalty, I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again’ – last year, we had to come from the back – but the car was amazing. We just kept our heads down and kept digging and fighting and then just did what we always do, and here we are.”
Next week, the Cup Series travels to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the ISM Connect 300. Harvick is the defending winner.
Race results (by Racing-Reference)
Featured image by @ChicagolndSpdwy