When the checkered flag flew on Sunday’s Citizen Soldier 400 from Dover International Speedway, Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 78 team showed that they are not underdogs anymore.
They won the race, the third of the Chase and final one of the Round of 16, in decisive fashion, as Truex Jr. led 187 of the 400 laps to tame the Monster Mile for the second time in his career and the first time since 2007, when he earned his first career win.
“We’re not messing around, I guess,” Truex Jr. told NBCSN in victory lane. “We’re here to get it done, and, golly I’m telling you just the best bunch of guys you could ever ask for. It’s just amazing to drive their race cars and do what we were able to do. I’m just ecstatic.”
The win is the No. 78’s fourth of the season. He had three wins in his entire NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career entering the 2016 season.
“This is just unbelievable,” Truex Jr. continued. “Especially here – I love this race track. It’s been considered a home track for me for a long time. It’s been since ’07 since I won here. Have a lot of heartbreaks here. I’ve got to pinch myself. We’re ready to go to Charlotte [for the opening race in the Round of 12 next weekend].”
The 16-driver Chase field was also cut down to 12, as four drivers were eliminated as the first round has come and gone. Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Chris Buescher were the bottom four when Truex Jr. crossed the start/finish line on the top of the leaderboard.
Stewart came home in 13th and just didn’t have the overall speed and performance to continue on in this year’s playoffs. He now has seven races remaining in his NSCS career, but reassured his fans that his No. 14 team won’t give up despite the elimination.
Larson was a popular pick at the start of the Chase due to the momentum he was carrying along with him. But issues with the No. 42’s ignition early in the race, compounded by a penalty for too many men over the wall, put him behind the eight-ball. After he kissed the wall to bring out the third of four cautions, it was all but over. He ultimately finished in 25th place and six laps down. His first playoff appearance was short lived.
McMurray, Larson’s teammate, had some bad luck. The No. 1’s engine expired on lap 193, ending his day and his championship hopes (finished dead last in 40th). Buescher was 30 points behind entering the race, and his 23rd place finish wasn’t the miracle he needed.
The 12 drivers advancing to the next round are the aforementioned Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon.
Ky. Busch, Elliott, Keselowski, Kenseth, Logano, Johnson (led 90 laps but was penalized on pit road late,, derailing his afternoon), Dillon, Hamlin and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top ten when the checkered flag flew on the first round of the playoffs.
Notables include Edwards (15th), Ku. Busch (16th), Danica Patrick (28th) and Harvick (37th). Harvick, the No. 4, broke a track bar mount within the first 40 laps. He was already locked into the next round by virtue of his win at New Hampshire the week prior.
The Round of 12 kicks off next weekend from Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday evening (Oct. 8 on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET) for the Bank of America 500. Truex Jr. dominated the Coca-Cola 600 earlier in the summer, and if the first round is any indication: look out, because the No. 78 is just getting started.