The first race in the playoffs was completed last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. It was dominated by the drivers competing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Eight championship drivers finished in the top 10, but the pressure of the championship may have led to several hiccups by the teams and drivers.
Martin Truex Jr. failed the Laser Inspection Station three times prior to the race before finally passing. There will be some kind of penalty next week, though most likely just a loss of practice time. He also was caught speeding on pit road but it was early in the race, giving him time to overcome the mistake and finish where he has finished five times this year – first.
Kyle Busch had the fastest car in the race, winning the pole by a huge 3-second margin. He dominated Stage 1, leading all but two laps during the stage. After pitting for fresh Goodyear tires, he returned to the pits under green-flag conditions for a loose wheel. His problems were compounded when a member of his pit crew was over the wall too soon.
After serving the pass-thru penalty, he found himself 2 laps down. He never was able to get back on the lead lap and finished 15th. Following the regular season, Joe Gibbs made the decision to swap crews with Daniel Suarez as his crew demonstrated faster pit time during the year. The pressure may have gotten to them as they made several mistakes.
Truex came into the playoffs seeded first and he showed everyone that it wasn’t a fluke. After Busch had his problems, Truex took over and padded his point’s lead. With the win, he also automatically advances to the second round of the playoffs.
“I’m so excited,” Truex said. “This is the playoffs. This is what it’s all about. I’m so proud of everyone. The car was amazing, we did what we always do.” Truex has a 27-point lead over Kyle Larson going into New Hampshire this Sunday.
Truex and Busch were not the only playoff drivers to have penalties. Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch. And Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all committed pit road penalties. Stenhouse made two pit road mistakes and finished the race in 25th place, the lowest of the playoff drivers.
Two races remain in the first round of the playoffs, at New Hampshire and Dover. The bottom four drivers will be cut after the round. After Chicagoland, the bottom four drivers are Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse and Kurt Busch.