Racing with a heavy heart, Martin Truex, Jr.’s seventh win of 2017 was in memory of road-crew fabricator Jim Watson. His championship rival Kyle Larson failed to make the Round of 8 after an engine failure while Jimmie Johnson escaped multiple issues to advance.
The carnage from Talladega paled in comparison to Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas as championship aspirations and career opportunities took a nosedive for several drivers in the final Round of 12 race.
In the mist of the drama, two playoff drivers overcame the odds, but only one crossed the line in first and that was Martin Truex, Jr., sweeping both races after leading 91 of 267 laps.
Truex and the entire Furniture Row Racing team raced with heavy hearts and dedicated the win to their fallen road-crew fabricator Jim Watson, 55, who died from a heart attack the night before the race.
Watson joined the team this season after previously working for HScott Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing.
“Just can’t say enough about all these guys on this Furniture Row/Bass Pro Toyota,” Truex said. “Just really proud of them. Definitely racing with heavy hearts today with losing Jim last night. Want to send our condolences to his family and all of his friends. He was a heck of a guy and a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Furniture Row Toyotas, so glad we could get him one here.”
Truex’s win also came with adversity after serving a pass-through penalty due to switching lanes on the restart as he drove on the apron before crossing the start-finish line on lap 36.
The challenge increased after making an unscheduled pit stop for a loose wheel, losing a lap in the process.
However, things began turning around for Truex on lap 47 after Brett Moffitt hit the turn two wall.
Truex said the restart violation caught him off guard and cited Moffitt’s accident as the turning point of the race.
“Just couldn’t believe some of the things that were happening and thought there was no way that we were going to win that race at some point,” Truex said. “That first restart violation really caught me by surprise and that hurt, but that wasn’t the last blow we had to take. There was the loose wheel we had to pit for under green and getting a lap down and being able to stay out through that last stage and get that lap back was crucial.”
From there, Truex persevered from those pitfalls and returned on top of the leaderboard after passing Kyle Busch for the race lead with 57 laps to go and never looked back as he cruised towards his seventh win of the season, becoming the first driver since Matt Kenseth in 2013 to score seven Cup wins.
“Excited to get another one here at Kansas. This feels really awesome. It’s really Furniture Row’s home track,” Truex said. “It just feels really good to finally get another one here. We got that one in the spring after so many heartbreaks, and then today it didn’t looked like it was going to happen and we just persevered.”
Kurt Busch brought his No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford in second. Followed by playoff contenders Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin who all advanced in the Round of 8 via points.
Chris Buescher scored a top-10 for JTG-Daugherty Racing, his fourth of the season. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished in seventh for the second straight week.
Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola (in his return at the track where he was injured this spring) and Kurt’s brother Kyle—who led a race-high 112 laps—rounded out the top 10.
Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were eliminated after all four retired from the race.
Larson—who entered the playoffs among the three championship favorites—saw his title hopes go up in smoke on lap 77 after losing a cylinder laps earlier and finished 39th.
Larson who entered the race with a 29-point advantage over ninth place Kyle Busch, exited the 1.5-mile circuit falling nine points short from making the next round.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s day went from bad to worse on lap 198 as McMurray was involved in a 14-car crash at turn two after turning Erik Jones around, lifting his car up in the air until Daniel Suarez plowed into him, triggering the pileup.
The big wreck brought out the 18th red flag of 2017 and marked the fourth race out of the last five to see a stoppage.
McMurray finished 34th and much like Sterling Marlin’s season-ending injury in 2002, Kansas marked the end of Ganassi’s title aspirations in NASCAR’s premiere series.
In what may have been his last championship opportunity, Kenseth was also involved in the wreck and subsequently was disqualified from the race after having too many men over the pit wall fixing his car, ending the day in 37th.
Among the playoff drivers not involved was seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who almost saw his quest of winning his eighth championship come to an end.
Johnson said he was relieved he avoided the wreck and not hit McMurray.
“Somehow, I went through there at a high rate of speed and missed everybody. I don’t know how, but I made it,” Johnson said. “Then Jamie’s car was sitting there and I thought I had him lined-up for a square impact, but fortunately he slid out of the way.”
Before escaping the mayhem, Johnson had to overcome adversity after losing control of his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in turn four on lap 188, spinning through the grass and damaged his right front fender.
Johnson pitted to fix the car and fixed it in under five minutes, but five laps later, Johnson spun again, this time in turn three.
This time around, Johnson didn’t sustain any damage and rallied back for an 11th place effort, good enough to advance in the Round of 8, beating Larson for the final spot.
Johnson admitted he had a loose car that resulted his two spins.
“The car was extremely loose,” Johnson said. “We fought the balance throughout the day and the car would swing so hard. We were trying for short run speed to free the car up and we just got too far with it and I spun out twice. Thankfully I didn’t hit anything too hard.”
Johnson—along with Harvick—will enter the next round as the fourth seed, trailing Truex by 52 points. 12 down, 8 to go as the championship battle continues at Martinsville Speedway Oct. 29 in Martinsville, Virginia.
Johnson has nine wins at the paper clip short track including the most recent fall race Oct. 30, 2016 that eventually led to his record-tying seventh championship.