Truex opens Cup playoffs with fifth win of the season

Points leader wins at Chicagoland for the second straight year

Martin Truex Jr. reacts after winning the Tales of the Turtles 400 Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. (Mike DiNovo / USA TODAY Sports)

JOLIET, Ill. — After winning the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season, Martin Truex Jr. kicked off the 10-race playoffs with a win Sunday in the Nickelodeon Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I’m just having fun,” Truex said after notching his fifth win of the season.

Chase Elliott finished second, Kevin Harvick was third, Denny Hamlin placed fourth, and Kyle Larson — all among the series 16-driver playoff field — rounded out the top five.

“We just had to execute and take what they’ll give you and not finish any worse than that,” Harvick said. “I think we did that today. I felt like the 24 (Elliott) and the 78 (Truex) were a little better than us and we finished right where we should have.”

Truex took his first lead of the race when he got by Harvick with 77 laps remaining. He got off pit road first when the yellow flag waved for an Erik Jones spin with just over 50 laps remaining, then maintained that lead on the final restart of the race. Over the course of the remaining laps, he pulled away.

Elliott claimed a stage-two win at lap 160 after taking the lead from Harvick on pit road during green just past lap 120. After taking the lead, Elliott ran up front for the remainder of the second stage.

“Just a huge step in the right direction,” Elliott said. “Days like this are the days we are going to have to have. There is no way around that. I thought we had a solid day, overall. Our car drove good; it had pace; our pit stops were good. I didn’t have anything for Martin. I thought we made the most of our day; without some luck, I wasn’t going to get around him unless we had a late-race restart or something. I had a solid day, and frankly, it is a lot better than we have been doing and we’ve got to have days like this to keep moving forward.”

Harvick took back the lead on the restart at the beginning of the third and final stage that began after lap 160.

Kyle Busch dominated the first 80-lap stage, leading all but two laps en route to a stage-one win. The only two laps he didn’t lead in the opening stage were two led by Landon Cassill during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. By the time the first stage ended, Busch had a lead of more than five seconds over second-place driver Harvick.

Busch was passed on the race track for the first time when Harvick got by him for the lead on the first restart of the race on lap 88.

Busch then made an unscheduled pit stop for a loose right-rear wheel about 10 laps later and was assessed a pit-road penalty when too many crew members went over the pit wall. As a result, Busch went two laps down, but with newer tires, Busch quickly regained one of those laps.

Busch wasn’t the first playoff driver to have difficulty on pit road. Truex got up to second at the start of the race but got caught speeding on pit road during green-flag pit stops around lap 40.

Despite, the penalty, Truex was able to remain on the lead lap and was back up to 10th by the end of the first 80-lap stage. He restarted 13th for the second stage, though, making an extra stop during the caution to tighten lug nuts.

Truex got back inside the top three by the end of the second stage.

“I’m proud of our pit crew for doing what they did and everyone on this team,” Truex said. “It’s important to come here and not let the pressure get to you, and I think we did a good job of that. Every time you go to Victory Lane, it’s special. There’s just so many people to thank. I’m kind of speechless, but Barney (Visser, team owner), and everyone at TRD (Toyota Racing Development) in Costa Mesa building great engines and TRD Salisbury — Bass Pro, Tracker Boats — just everyone, thank you so much. It’s a dream come true and we’re having the time of our lives.”

Playoff drivers Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch also were nabbed speeding on pit road, Dillon during the first cycle of stops, and Busch while making a final green-flag stop with under 60 laps remaining.

Another playoff driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., was forced down pit road for repairs after getting into the wall around lap 30. Stenhouse struggled throughout the remainder of the race.

NOTES: Toyota dominated throughout the weekend leading up to Sunday’s race. Kyle Busch was fastest of four Toyota drivers atop the speed chard in opening practice Friday. He also led the way in final practice Saturday. Truex, another Toyota driver, was fastest in second practice. Toyota also claimed the top three starting positions in qualifying Friday. … Kyle Larson finished second in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway on Saturday, while Erik Jones led nearly half the race, running up front for 94 of the 200 laps that made up the race. Other Cup Series drivers, including Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon also ran the Xfinity race. … Jones had to drop to the back at the start of Sunday’s Cup race because of an unapproved tire change after qualifying. … Truex won last year’s race at Chicagoland. … Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are the only two active drivers with multiple wins at Chicagoland Speedway, each with two. But Harvick’s two wins came in the first two Cup Series races at the track in 2001 and 2002. … Retired NASCAR driver Tony Stewart is the all-time wins leader at the Chicagoland Speedway with three.