Truex Jr. overcomes early speed bump to dominate at Charlotte

Points leader Martin Truex Jr. got off to a slow start Sunday, but came on strong to win the Bank of America 500 for his sixth victory of the season

Martin Truex Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after his win in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

CHARLOTTE — Martin Truex Jr. qualified 17th for Sunday’s Bank of America 500 and failed to finish in the top 10 after the first stage of a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race for the first time since Daytona in July.

But the way things have been going this season for the Furniture Row Racing driver, those obstacles were little more than a momentary speed bump.

Truex worked his Toyota through the field and, with a little help from his pit crew, took the lead on lap 281 of the 337-lap race. He then pulled away before withstanding two late restarts, beating Chase Elliott to the checkered flag for his his sixth win of the season and automatic advancement to the next round of the series playoffs.

“I just feel like everything is lining up the way we need it to,” said Truex, who was overcome by emotion while celebrating with his team in Victory Lane. “Every part of our program was flawless. That’s what it takes to win championships.”

Truex has been the dominant driver all season on the Monster Energy Series, especially on mile-and-a-half tracks like Charlotte Motor Speedway where he has earned five of his victories.

He was anything but dominant in the early going Sunday, however, admitting that his car “wasn’t even close to winning” during the opening 91-lap stage.

That changed thanks to some fast pit stops and a few major adjustments from his crew .

While Truex and his team were trying to figure out the right setup on a dreary day that saw the race start an hour early because of the threat of rain, Kevin Harvick was flexing his muscle in front of the field.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led four times for 149 laps while winning both of the first two race stages. Although he only finished third, Harvick was a big winner Sunday because of the bonus points he gained from his early success.

“We just kind of lost a little bit of the track there as the (traction compound that was put down) started to wear off in the second half of the race,” Harvick said. “… As the day went on I just got looser on the entrance to the corners.”

Harvick moved from sixth place in the standings to third behind Truex and Kyle Larson, who finished 10th after encountering some problems in the pits. Elliott, whose second straight runnerup finish came on his Hall of Fame father Bill’s 62nd birthday, is fourth in the standings, followed by pole sitter Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray. Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are all below the cutoff line and are in danger of playoff elimination.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is not in the playoffs, was never a factor while finishing 12th in his final race in his home state.

“It wasn’t the day we wanted,” Keselowski said. “We’ve got two races left to go (in this round) and we need two strong races.”

In addition to the changes in track condition, the drivers had to battle the heat and humidity that only got worse as the day wore on.

Kyle Busch, who hit the wall while in the lead on lap 137 and spun out twice more before the day was done, had to be treated by medical personnel after climbing out of his car following a 29th place finish.

As steamy as it was in Charlotte, things promise to get even hotter for the playoff drivers next week when they head to Talladega, a track notorious for its surprising results and multi-car crashes.

While all the other drivers will be feeling the heat, Truex will be able to play it cool thanks to his victory Sunday.

“There’s so many unknowns there. You just never know,” Truex said of Talladega. “There’s so much out of control. To go there and not have to worry about all those things is definitely a good feeling. But we’ll go there and try to do everything just the way we did this weekend.”

It’s a weekend that ended with a victory for which he and his team had to work harder than usual. But that’s only one of the reasons why Truex was so emotional in Victory Lane. His thoughts were also with his girlfriend Sherry Pollex, who is undergoing chemotherapy and wasn’t able to attend the race.

“There’s a lot going on,” he said. “It just shows how much this stuff means to us. We put everything into this, everything we have — especially our team. Just the effort they put in is amazing and to succeed and be a part of that, it just feels unbelievable.”