In case you needed any more convincing that Martin Truex Jr. was the man to beat for this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 from Kansas Speedway gave you proof.
Truex Jr. wheeled his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry to Victory Lane for the seventh time this season, overcoming a restart penalty to boot, and gained more momentum (not like he needed it) heading into the Round of 8 beginning next weekend.
LUCKY NUMBER SEVEN
From 2004-2016, Martin Truex Jr. had seven wins in his Cup Series career. He now has seven in the 2017 season—and there’s still four more races (all winnable for MTJ) to go.
The dream season for the No. 78 team and the Mayetta, N.J. native continued Sunday. The victory came after Truex Jr. was penalized on a restart while leading for going below the white line on the apron and was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop due to a loose wheel. But like they have done so many times this season, they never gave up and wound up winners.
“Excited to get another one here at Kansas,” Truex Jr. said to NBC following his second win of the season in as many races at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. “This feels really awesome. It’s really Furniture Row’s home track (closest to the team’s Denver, Colorado, headquarters). It just feels really good to finally get – to finally get another one here. We got that one in the spring after so many heartbreaks. Then today it looked like it was going to happen and we just persevered.”
MILE AND A HALF MASTER
Intermediate tracks make up the bulk of the NASCAR season. Atlanta, Texas, Charlotte, Kansas, Las Vegas, Homestead, the list goes on. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that much of Martin Truex Jr.’s success this season has come on those 1.5-mile tracks.
In fact, MTJ broke Carl Edwards’ previous record of five wins on intermediate tracks in one season, as this win at Kansas Speedway was his sixth. He also eclipsed another milestone.
Truex Jr. became the 12th driver in the modern era (1972-present) to lead over 2,000 laps in a single season, joining the likes of Dale Jarrett, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Kevin Harvick, Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. What do all those drivers have in common? All former champions.
MORE THAN ANOTHER VICTORY
James “Jim” Watson, a road fabricator on both the No.’s 77 and 78 cars, passed away on Saturday evening after a team outing due to a heart attack. He was 55 years old.
“He was an outstanding and talented member of our racing family, whose life was dedicated to racing since his early days as a race-car driver in Wisconsin,” FRR president Joe Garrone said in a team release. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim’s wife Laurie, daughter Brittany and to his entire family and friends. Our No. 77 and 78 teams will be racing with heavy hearts today.”
Watson was in the sport for over a decade. He spent 10 years with Roush Fenway Racing and one year with HScott Motorsports, before joining FRR at the start of this season. The face of the company, Martin Truex Jr., had some kind words to say about Watson in Victory Lane, as he pointed to the sky upon climbing out of his car after the celebration had concluded.
“(We’re) definitely racing with heavy hearts today with losing Jim (Watson) last night,” Truex Jr. said after winning the Hollywood Casino 400. “Want to send our condolences to his family and all of his friends. He was a heck of a guy and a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Furniture Row Toyotas, so glad we could get him one here.”
Following Truex Jr. across the finish line was Kurt Busch in second. The result was the No. 41’s best finish since his win in the season-opening Daytona 500 victory. Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin (won stage two) rounded out the top five finishers from Kansas.
Chris Buescher (yes, Chris Buescher), Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch (won stage one) rounded out the top 10 finishers, with Jimmie Johnson (who spun out twice), Paul Menard and Brad Keselowski finishing in 11th, 12th and 13th places, respectively.
Other playoff contenders finished as follows: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 29th, Jamie McMurray in 34th, Matt Kenseth in 37th and Kyle Larson in 39th. What happened to them? Stay tuned…
LARSON’S HOPES GO UP IN SMOKE
One of the biggest surprises of the season occurred on lap 73 in the Hollywood Casino 400 from Kansas Speedway on Sunday afternoon when one of the dominant cars all season long saw the chance at a championship go in smoke on the frontstretch—literally.
Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet blew an engine for the first time this season and the first time in Larson’s full-time Cup Series career. It happened to come at the worst possible time. The engine failure resulted in a 39th-place finish and an elimination from the NASCAR Playoffs for the Elk Grove, Ca. native, who was enjoying his best season of his young career.
“It’s painful,” Larson said upon climbing out of his car. “I guess, I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport. I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times, most every time at least in the new Playoff format era not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race Playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid Playoffs. We have been consistent and just now got bit.”
The possible misfortune of Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth gave the No. 42 a glimmer of hope in terms of advancement, but it wasn’t meant to be. Larson tried to remain positive on Twitter following the heartbreak, but it’s tough to. Fourteen top fives, 19 top 10s, eight second-place finishes, four wins and not even a chance at the title to show for it. This sport can be tough.
KENSETH DQ’D AFTER PENALTY
Matt Kenseth didn’t have the best of days when it came to luck, either, as he failed to advance to the Round of 8 for the third year in a row due to extremely unique circumstances.
Although Talladega was last weekend, “The Big One” made its way to Kansas, as a huge wreck on lap 197 of 267 occurred on the backstretch, collecting 14 cars. Jamie McMurray was among the unlucky 14, making any chance of him advancing to the next round impossible.
Kenseth was also involved, but in a minor way. There was a tad of cosmetic damage on the No. 20 Toyota, so his pit crew went to work on the car in his pit stall as the five-minute crash clock began. They were able to work on the car before the red flag was displayed. But it was too late.
There were seven crew members over the wall servicing the car, one more than the allotted amount of six. This, per the NASCAR rulebook and damaged vehicle policy, results in a penalty. Under the five-minute clock, this penalty results in a disqualification. Kenseth was done.
“You’re telling me we (sent) too many guys over the wall, so we can’t race for a championship?” Kenseth said in disbelief over the radio when notified that the No. 20’s afternoon was over. He put his car in reverse, took it to the garage and climbed out of his car, still a bit shocked.
“I really don’t have a lot good to say right now,” Kenseth said in a media scrum after parking his car in his garage stall. “I’m more than disappointed. We showed some flashes of brilliance this season, been off and on, been fast at times, had great pit stops at times, just haven’t been able to put it all together like a championship team needs to. Unfortunately, this is an example of that. I hope that I can do a better job here the next four weeks and hopefully go get a win.”
Kenseth’s plans for next season are still up in the air, as Erik Jones is taking over the No. 20 ride and the 2003 MENCS champion is still unemployed. This season might be it for him. And if it is, he went out of championship contention in a unique way. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the rule.
BACK TO FRONT FOR BLANEY
After starting dead last due to an inspection issue after qualifying, Ryan Blaney rocketed his way to the front of the field to ultimately finish third. He cemented himself as a contender early, and continued his strong runs at Kansas, as he won two stages at this track in the spring.
“We started off in the back, and I was able to make some good ground early,” Blaney said of his climb through the field in stage one from dead last to inside the top ten in the No. 21 Ford. “(We) were able to run up through there and made good adjustments throughout the day, which got us in a spot to be up toward the front towards the end and advance. It was a solid day for our team. We overcame a lot coming from the back, and they should be proud of that.”
Although Blaney’s time with the Wood Brothers is coming to an end when the checkered flag flies at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he’s determined to give them their 100th win and perhaps even sneak them a spot in the championship four. The way he’s running now, that’s not out of the question. The No. 21 is the most consistent Penske-affiliated car at the moment.
WHO’S WHERE AND WHAT’S NEXT
The playoff grid has now dwindled from 16, to 12, and now to eight. Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are the remaining drivers eligible to hoist the hardware in Miami in a few weeks. The original playoff field has been cut in half, and now it’s really time to get down to business.
And that business begins next weekend from Martinsville Speedway, the shortest track on the NASCAR schedule, for the 69th annual First Data 500. The green flag for that event, which will kick off the Round of 8, is scheduled to fly at approximately 3:16 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon.