Martin Truex Jr.(78) knows stage racing. While everyone else in the garage was trying the dynamics of stage points and playoff points. The 78 team set out to gain as much of an advantage as they could coming to the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. At the end of Stage One at Darlington Raceway Truex, who started second, was running just behind Kyle Larson(42) as the pair came to the green/white checkered flag. Coming off turn four, Truex drove to the low side of the track and outraced Larson to the line capturing his 16th stage win of the season and the playoff point that goes with finishing in the top spot at the end of a Stage.
Pole sitter Kevin Harvick(4) looked to be the dominate car early. However, at the first yellow flag pit stops Harvick’s team had trouble with the jack elevating the car high enough. The slight delay in removing tires caused Harvick to exit the pits in 10th position. He only managed to climb into fourth by the end of the stage. Denny Hamlin(11) finished third.
Larson exited the pits first from the stage ending caution. Followed by Truex and Hamlin. But, it was Truex who again drove to the front at the end of the stage. When Gray Gaulding(83) spun with three laps to go in Stage Two, Truex earned his 17th Stage win of the season. Truex also clinched the regular season points championship over Kyle Busch(18) and Larson. Neither can catch Truex in the final race before the playoffs at Richmond Raceway.
By clinching the championship Truex gets an extra 15 playoff points. Here is the math.
4 Race Wins X 5 Playoff Points Equals 20 Playoff Points
17 Stage Wins X 1 Playoff Point Equals 17 Playoff Points and 37 Total Points
Adding 1 Championship Win X 15 Playoff Points Equals a Total of 52 Playoff Points
Considering that these playoff points transfer with the driver through the first three rounds of the playoff and there are only 61 points available in each race, Truex is almost assured of being one of the final four to contend for the Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It would take a complete failure in all three races of a playoff round and most likely three different winners in that round to put Truex in danger of elimination.
The “Throwback Weekend” at the “Track too Tough to Tame was a huge hit with the fans. The front grandstand was packed, too rare of a sight at NASCAR races. The crowd cheered as King Richard Petty led the field across the start/finish line during the pace laps. Petty, driving his original Petty Blue Plymouth, seemed to enjoy the opportunity to lead as well. Schedule to run two of the pace laps, Richard stayed out and was ceremoniously black-flagged so the race could start.
Hamlin led most of the laps in the final segment. But, when he went to pit with 54 laps to go he missed the entry to pit road. The mistake cost Hamlin a huge amount of track position. When he pitted on the next lap and returned to the track he was 20 seconds behind Truex who had inherited the lead.
Over the final 50 laps of the race, Hamlin narrowed the interval to pull within two seconds of Truex with five laps to go. Truex running on 60 lap old tires and short on fuel tried to hold on for the win. With three laps to go Truex cut a tire coming out of turn four and brushed the wall. Hamlin passed safely and drove to his second Bojangles Southern 500 win. Truex finished eighth, the last car on the lead lap.
Kyle Busch took second, Kurt Busch(41) third, Austin Dillon(3) fourth, and Michigan native rookie Erik Jones(77) finished in fifth.
On a tough night for the Ford contingent. Kurt Busch was the only Fusion to finish in the top 5. Pole sitter Harvick finished ninth, one lap down. Brad Keselowski(2) took 15th, Joey Logano(22) 18th, and Aric Almirola(43) 20th.
With one race to go before the start of the playoffs, the point standings make the playoff chase perfectly clear. Chase Elliott(24) 69 points above the cut line, Matt Kenseth(20) 61 points above, and Jamie McMurray(1) 58 points above are in the playoffs unless a non-winner enters victory lane at Richmond. Should a first-time winner capture the Federated Auto Parts 400, the trio will battle it out for the two remaining spots.
Clint Bowyer(14), in 17th and the first man out, is not mathematically eliminated. Bowyer would need to win all three stages of next weeks race while McMurray finished 39th or 40th without a stage point for the 14 car to get in on points. Not impossible, but highly unlikely.
Anyone else hoping for a playoff spot will have to win their way in the Saturday night race scheduled for a 7:30 pm green flag.