LAS VEGAS — It had been almost three months since Martin Truex Jr. last raised a trophy, and while others may have wondered about his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team’s playoff potential, its members never wavered in confidence or pursuit.
And sure enough, they were the ones celebrating in Victory Lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after Sunday night‘s South Point 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs opener.
“Welcome back,‘‘ an ecstatic Truex screamed to his team on the radio after taking the checkered flag an impressive 4.173-seconds ahead of a fellow playoff competitor, Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Kevin Harvick.
It was Truex‘s fifth victory of the year — best in the field — and an automatic ticket to the next round of the playoffs.
“We took a gamble, qualified 24th,‘‘ said Truex, who led 32 laps. “For a while, it wasn‘t looking too smart with the 4 (Harvick) out front. Got the right adjustments in the end. Had a great car all day long.
“Hell of a way to make a championship run. Get some good bonus points, move on to the next round, see what we can do there.‘‘
As strong as Harvick‘s Ford had been — leading 47 laps — he said afterward he really didn‘t have much for Truex in the end.
“I knew the Gibbs cars would be tough,‘‘ the 2014 Cup champ said. “Martin was just so much better on the second half of the run. He made up that ground there, was able to stay close enough to us. My car started to get loose and push the front. It was just in kind of a four-wheel drift.
“We did some things this weekend that we probably will have to undo going forward. I think we can do a little bit better going forward.‘‘
The top 10 drivers were all playoff competitors. Three-time Vegas winner Brad Keselowski was third in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. Hendrick Motorsports‘ Chase Elliott brought his No. 9 Chevrolet home fourth, and Harvick‘s Penske teammate, Ryan Blaney, was fifth.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron were sixth and seventh, respectively, followed by Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Kyle Larson in eighth, reigning series champion Joey Logano in ninth and Roush Fenway Racing‘s Ryan Newman in 10th.
While the final laps came down to a battle between Harvick and Busch, it was actually Logano who led the most laps overall — 105 of the 267.
“We got shuffled out the back and then got to the outside of the 41 (Daniel Suarez) and didn‘t know I was there and he crashed our car,‘‘ said Logano, whose No. 22 Ford suffered a lot of right side damage after it was squeezed into the wall avoiding Suarez. “We just didn‘t have a chance to fix it as good as it needed to be and as good as it was before that. They fixed it as good as they could to recover with a top 10.
“Our car was so fast and I feel like we had a chance of winning it, but we just kind of got shuffled into everything.‘‘
Logano won Stage 1 and fell second to Truex in Stage 2.
It was a frustrating evening for many of the other playoff drivers as well. Several worked through various obstacles, from a flat tire for polesitter Clint Bowyer (finished 25th) to a crash for Ganassi driver Kurt Busch (39th) to an early race mechanical issue for JGR‘s Erik Jones (36th).
First-time playoffs participant and 21-year-old Byron rallied to that seventh-place finish but actually brought out one of the race‘s four caution flags on lap 182 after spinning.
Regular-season champion and Las Vegas native Kyle Busch also had a busy day. He went two laps down early after brushing the wall. He made up enough positions on track and earned a spot back on the lead lap, only to have problems with lapped cars as he raced forward.
The frustration was clear after he climbed out of his No. 18 JGR car on pit road, relegated with a 19th-place finish even after he rallied back inside the top 10 at one point in the waning laps.
“Should have run fourth probably, instead of 19th,” Busch said on pit road, his disappointment obvious as he called out the driving technique from slower cars.
The upside for Busch is the bonus points he received for winning the season title will carry over and balance some of the bad luck.
“It‘s pathetic to have to lean on insurance,” Busch said. “My premiums are going to go up.‘‘
The Cup Series moves to Richmond Raceway next week for the second race of the opening playoff round. With the victory at Vegas, Truex has taken a three-point lead on Harvick in the championship standings. Logano is third, seven points behind Truex. Busch is fourth, 19 points off the lead.