I was very vocal about who I felt was the guy to beat when NASCAR’s playoffs began this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. I had no doubt in my mind who it was going to be, and the only time it would change is if he somehow got eliminated before that.
But as I sit here, it is crystal clear that the guy to beat in this championship is Martin Truex Jr.
On Sunday he captured his fourth victory of the 2017 season, but that isn’t even the real picture of how dominant he has been.
NASCAR’s new stage racing format has been a clinic for the No. 78 team. Stage win after stage win, then victory after victory. This team has flat out been unbeatable in this new racing format. In fact, he was so dominant, the regular season championship was already in place once he took the green flag at Richmond. He entered the Playoffs with nearly a full race gap on the closest contenders.
Knowing that all he needed to do was win and the next round was a lock, he had to earn it the hard way in the Windy City.
Pit road miscues early caught him back in the pack, but the team and their leader never quit, and worked forward to the front, getting the lead during the final stage of the race. Then, Truex turned up the pressure, and no one was even close to trying to let it off.
When the final flag waved on the race, Truex had built over a seven-second gap to second place, and no one was even trying to catch him as the laps clicked away. It was a battle for second at that point, because the No. 78 was going to win, no questions asked.
The first race of the NASCAR playoffs and just as in the regular season, the dominant car went to victory. That is five more playoff points to his tally, and five more he can used when the points are reset in the second round. Remember, in the round of 16, 12 and 8, the playoff points are added in to determine seeding. Only the final race of the season will the points all be even, because there it is four drivers racing to the flag, with the first driver across the line winning the championship.
Whether he wins that race or not, my money is on Truex to hoist that 60-pound trophy at season’s end.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch
STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott
RESULTS: 1-Truex Jr. 2-Elliott 3-Harvick 4-Hamlin 5-Larson 6-Keselowski 7-Logano 8-Johnson 9-Kenseth 10-McMurray
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Blaney 15-Kyle Busch 19-Kurt Busch 21-Kahne 23-Newman 25-Stenhouse Jr.
CAUTIONS: 4 for 21 laps. 82-87 (Stage 1 conclusion); 162-167 (Stage 2 conclusion); 169-172 (#1 Spin-T2); 211-215 (#77 Spin-T4).
LEAD CHANGES: 12 among 7 drivers. Kyle Busch 1-44; L. Cassill 45-46; Kyle Busch 47-87; K. Harvick 88-122; B. Keselowski 123; D. Hamlin 124; C. Elliott 125-162; K. Harvick 163; C. Elliott 164-167; K. Harvick 168-189; M. Truex Jr. 190-211; K. Harvick 212; M. Truex Jr. 213-267.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 45 Mins, 16 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 145.401 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 7.179 Seconds
MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP PLAYOFFS: 1. Truex Jr, 2102*; 2. Larson, -27; 3. Harvick, -35; 4. Keselowski, -41; 5. Kyle Busch, -41; 6. Elliott, -43; 7. Hamlin, -44; 8. Johnson, -56; 9. Kenseth, -63; 10. Blaney, -68; 11. McMurray, -71; 12. Dillon, -76; 13. Kurt Busch, -76; 14. Stenhouse Jr, -80; 15. Kahne, -81; 16. Newman, -83.
*Advances automatically into Round of 12