NASCAR | Truex in title form as playoffs begin

Martin Truex Jr. celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Monster Energy Series auto race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

The playoff points system introduced in NASCAR this year was designed to reward drivers for regular season performance, perhaps helping a top team advance to the next round of the playoffs when it otherwise might not. Regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. needed none of that, winning Sunday’s Monster Energy Cup series race at Chicagoland Speedway to clinch a berth in the postseason’s second round. Here are some stories to emerge after the first event of the 10-race postseason in NASCAR’s top series:

True(x) inspiration

Truex led 77 of the final 78 laps, including the last 55, on his way to his series-high fifth victory this season and his second consecutive win at Chicagoland. The Furniture Row Racing Toyota driver even overcame an early penalty for entering the pits too fast. Truex was quick to credit his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who has been battling ovarian cancer.

“I’m a lot better driver these days because of her,” Truex said. “We’ve learned a lot about life together.”

Swap a flop for Busch

With one notable exception, most of the top runners all season were out front Sunday on Chicagoland’s 1.5-mile oval. The top six finishers and 10 of the top 11 were all playoff participants. But Kyle Busch finished 15th after a few pit road miscues, negating his race-high 85 laps led. What’s interesting about that: His Joe Gibbs Racing team swapped out his pit crew last week. His No. 18 crew had made several crucial errors during the summer, so the No. 19 crew of Daniel Suarez was moved to Busch’s car.

When asked about it after the race, Busch curtly said, “We move on.”

More pit problems

A bad day in the opener doesn’t end a team’s playoff hopes, but it can put a team behind the 8-ball. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had such a day on Sunday, with a brush against the outside wall and two pit penalties — one for a commitment line violation, one for speeding at the exit — consigning him to 25th place, worst among the 16 playoff qualifiers. With two races left until the playoff field is cut to 12, Stenhouse is below the cutoff line along with Kasey Kahne (21st on Sunday) and Ryan Newman (23rd). Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch are tied for 12th with 2,026 points.

What might have been

The top non-playoff car on Sunday was the No. 22 Ford driven by Joey Logano, who finished seventh. The Penske team probably will spend the next 10 weeks thinking “what if” after missing the playoffs because of an encumbered win when its car failed inspection at Richmond in April.

Tweet, tweet

All was fairly quiet on the social media front, at least from the drivers involved, a few days after Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski got into a Twitter spat over Keselowski’s comments regarding Toyota’s recent dominance:

After Keselowski’s tweet, Busch responded with one that… well, I won’t repeat it here because if you know your social media abbreviations, it’s a bit naughty (or NSFW for those of you who made it this far).

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