Martin Truex Jr. took the checkered flag in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at the South Point 400 in Las Vegas on Sep. 15 in the first race of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs guaranteeing himself a spot in the second round and gaining valuable ground in his championship run.
Taking advantage of Kevin Harvick’s difficulty in passing lapped cars, Truex Jr. timed his move to the front perfectly with only 20 laps remaining and quickly pulled away from the field to cross the line 4.173 seconds ahead of Harvick for his fifth win of the season. Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top five.
“It’s a hell of a way to make a championship run. We got some good bonus points and move on to the next round and see what we can do. That was a lot of fun,” Truex Jr. said. “The win takes some pressure off us and the biggest thing is it gives us more playoff points. The next two weeks we can try to get even more of those and that’s huge. Any playoff points you can get are going to help you get to Homestead.”
Truex Jr. also captured valuable playoff points with a stage two victory after another well-timed pass of Joey Logano, the defending series champion, with only two laps remaining in the stage. Logano had been the most dominant driver of the race up to that point, having led 105 laps and winning stage one, but after the restart he got bogged down in traffic and ended the day with a ninth-place finish.
“Frustrating because we had a fast car. I guess we scored a lot of points, so hopefully that kind of helps us in the next round,” Logano said. “The ultimate goal is to win the championship so it’s just frustrating when you have a very fast Mustang that was capable of winning.”
From a team perspective, Hendricks Motorsports had the best overall performance, led by Elliott, with Alex Bowman coming in at sixth followed by William Byron in seventh.
Elliott, starting from eighth, remained in the top-10 for the grand majority of the race and, at one point, led the race for a 12 lap stretch until a green flag pit-stop moved him back into the field. The strong finish moved the No. 9 Napa Chevy up to sixth in the playoff standing.
“I felt like we were closer today than we have been the past few weeks, so that was nice,” Elliott said. “Hopefully, we can have cars like that for the next nine weeks.”
On the other side of the tracks, Joe Gibbs Racing, the only team to qualify every driver on their roster, had the worst performance. Outside of the victory, all three remaining drivers Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch all finished outside of the top-10 as they experienced difficulty maneuvering through the sometimes four-wide traffic of the race.
Busch was especially critical of some of the more inexperienced drivers after the race, expressing a bit of frustration as to how the day panned out and his need to rely on his 15 bonus points from winning the regular season.
“We should have run fourth probably, instead 19th. We’re the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys that have never won late-model races running on the racetrack,” Busch said. “It’s pathetic to have to lean on insurance (playoff points). My premiums are going to go up.”
Fortunately for Busch, the second race of the playoffs will be the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday, Sep. 21 at Richmond Raceway where he has the most career wins amongst active drivers.
With the victory at Vegas, Truex has taken a three-point lead on Harvick in the championship standings. Logano is third, seven points behind Truex. Busch is fourth, 19 points off the lead.