Martin Truex Jr. did not arrive at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series opening race of the 10-event, 16-driver Playoffs on a hot streak.
But Truex sure left Vegas with some heat under his hood as he passed Kevin Harvick for the lead with 20 laps to go and from there cruised to the win in the South Point 400.
The victory was the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s series-best fifth of the season. It gave JGR its 14th win in 27 races this year.
On Friday, Truex said that he felt his team had lost some of its magic. After the race, Truex proclaimed that the magic had returned to his No. 19 team. “It is today,” he said. “That’s for sure.
“We took a gamble and qualified 24th and for a while there it wasn’t looking too smart with the 4 (Harvick) out front. But got the right adjustments and had a great car all day long.”
The win gives Truex an automatic berth in the next round of the Playoffs — The Round of Eight.
“This takes the pressure off for sure,” he said. “The biggest thing is more playoff points. The next two weeks we’ll try to get more of those and that’s huge.”
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick finished second.
“It was good,” Harvick said. “We had two solid stages and with the way that practice went for us, that was a miracle. To be in contention with a chance to win the race with 25 laps to go says a lot about the guys working on this 4 car and everybody did a great job of making something out of what wasn’t very bright for us on Friday.”
Third was Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski while Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske’s Chase Elliott were fourth and fifth, respectively.
All of the top-five drivers are Playoff contenders.
Truex, who won the Series championship in 2017, was coming off a three-race streak in which his best finish was 13th. He didn’t look to be much of a factor early in the Vegas weekend as he was off the pace in the final practice and then qualified just 24th fastest.
But when it counted under the lights on Sunday, Truex was terrific. His margin of victory was over four seconds.
Teammate Kyle Busch, who started the race with four wins on the season and as the Series points leader, ran into trouble early. Having to start 20th because of a poor qualifying effort, Busch side swiped the wall in the opening laps. That forced him to the pits 12 laps in to take right-side tires. That put him two laps down.
But the four-race winner kept pushing. He made it back to the top 10 in the final stage but faded late and finished 19th.
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and fellow Playoff driver Erik Jones had problems he could not overcome as his car became stuck in second gear early in Stage 2. Jones, who won at Darlington two weeks ago, had to take his car to the garage.
Other playoff drivers who left Vegas on unlucky streaks were Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch, who slammed the wall in the final stage; Team Penske’s Joey Logano, who, after leading 105 laps, ran into the rear of a back marker and suffered significant front-end damage and failed to challenge again; SHR’s Clint Bowyer, who started the race from the pole but from there, moved steadily backward and finished 25th and a lap off the pace.
—Field Level Media