Martin Truex Jr. celebrates his victory on Saturday at Richmond Raceway (Sean Gardner / Getty Images Photo)
RICHMOND, Virginia – A first-lap penalty would be enough to derail some NASCAR drivers, but not Martin Truex Jr.
Overcoming a penalty for skipping the first start of the Federated Auto Parts 400 on Saturday at Richmond Raceway, Truex drove through the field to claim his fourth NASCAR Cup Series win of the season.
The triumph, which occurred on the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, automatically advances Truex to the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
RESULTS: Federated Auto Parts 400
“It’s an important day in our history,” said Truex. “Yes, we are proud to win and this car is amazing and there are so many people to thank, but what a day to win. It reminds you of the honor, the privilege of coming here and doing this. “
Truex started in the front row alongside his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, but during the first start, Truex beat Hamlin to the start / finish line. Since Hamlin was the driving car for the first start, Truex was not allowed to hit him to the line and was punished with a pass-through penalty.
“That was frustrating, I’m not going to lie,” Truex said of the penalty. “I knew we would have a good enough car to overcome it.”
That dropped Truex to last place in the 37 car field, but he had 400 laps to make up the difference.
At the end of the first stage, Truex had moved back to eighth place. Fast forward to the end of the second leg and he finished third behind Hamlin and Kyle Busch, which put him in the best position to fight for victory.
Truex began to show his muscles during the final stage and took the lead from Hamlin shortly after the final stage started on lap 268. From then on, the fight between Truex, Busch and Hamlin continued, with all three at the front.
The last pit stop cycle took place shortly after lap 340, with Busch stopping first on lap 343 and Truex following one lap later on lap 344. Busch was charged with a speeding penalty in the pit lane, which in turn returned the lead to Truex.
Hamlin waited a little longer to stop and decided to pit 53 laps from the finish, hoping that by the end of the run he would be able to make up all of his time chasing Truex.
That strategy seemed to work when Hamlin began looking after Truex’s big lead for the last 25 rounds. Truex’s lead went from more than six seconds to less than three seconds as the field reached lap 390.
Hamlin continued to catch up, narrowing the gap to less than two seconds, but ran out of time when Truex pulled the checkered flag 1.5 seconds ahead of Hamlin.
“We knew there was a lot at stake tonight,” said Truex. “Very happy to be able to do this and going to Bristol next week with no worries is always fun.
Hamlin said he only had a few more turns to find Truex.
“Just a few more, just a few more,” Hamlin complained after the race. “Our pit stops were a little slow there and we lost two or three seconds, maybe four on this pit lane at these two stops. I was on the line about a second and a half (back).
“I only needed a few more laps, that’s all.”
Christopher Bell finished third, giving Joe Gibbs Racing an advantage over the top three. Chase Elliott was fourth and Joey Logano was fifth.
Kyle Larson finished sixth which, when combined with the stage points earned, was enough to include himself in round two of the playoffs. He joins Hamlin and Truex as the only driver to move into the second round of the playoffs with one race remaining.
Kurt Busch appeared to be a competitor at the start of the race on Saturday, but a flat tire sent him into the wall of the first corner on lap 40 and he was eliminated from the race. He finished 37th at the checkered flag and is tied with Alex Bowman for last place in the second round of the playoffs.
The first round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs ends next Saturday evening at Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.