DOVER, Del. – In a beatdown of epic proportions, Martin Truex Jr. cemented his status as a championship contender, winning for the second time in the last three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on Sunday afternoon.
Truex led a staggering 187 of 400 laps en route to victory in the Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover Int’l Speedway, but more impressively lapped all but the top six cars in a race that went 202 laps to the end without a caution flag.
The day started with Brad Keselowski on pole by virtue of owner points, but saw Truex out front by lap six as he and Kyle Busch waged an early war for the top spot on the pylon.
Busch would stay out front from laps 21 to 124, but once Truex found the point on the 125th circuit he began to assert his dominance, leading all the way through the race’s third of four cautions – in which Chase contender Kyle Larson blew a right front tire and smacked the outside wall.
That set up a restart at lap 190, where 10-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson powered around Truex’s outside to seize the lead away, quickly opening up an advantage before Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray blew a motor and triggered another caution just three laps later.
From there, Johnson rolled away and built a big advantage once the green flag returned for good at lap 199, leading 89 consecutive laps before making a pit stop on lap 278 that completely changed the complexion of the event.
Johnson’s crew had a member over the wall too soon as he came in for his service, leading to a pass-through penalty from NASCAR that forced Johnson back down pit road, put him a lap down and took him out of contention for the victory.
Once the pit cycle concluded at lap 287, Truex was back in command again, only giving up the lead again during the final set of green flag pit stops the rest of the way.
As Jeff Gordon pitted to conclude the final cycle with 27 laps to go, the Mayetta, New Jersey native returned to the lead for good and went on to his second-career win at his self-proclaimed “home track.”
Sunday brought Truex’s career full-circle, with his win at Dover being his first at the one-mile track since his first-career Sprint Cup win in 2007.
“We’re not messing around, I guess,” said Truex of his seventh career victory. “We are here to get it done. This is just unbelievable. I don’t even know what to say. Especially here, I love this race track. It has been considered a home track for me for a long time. It’s been since ’07 since I won here. I’ve had a lot of heartbreaks here. But all in all we just had a phenomenal race car again today.”
Truex has now won three of the last five Sprint Cup races and will take the same car to next week’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he dominated the Coca-Cola 600 with in May, leading all but eight laps.
“I got to pinch myself (because) this run has been just unbelievable,” he smiled. “I’m ready to go to Charlotte. The sky’s the limit for this team.”
Kyle Busch finished a distant second, 7.5 seconds adrift of Truex at the checkered flag.
“I was just waiting to make my move,” Busch quipped. “No, I’m just kidding … I had nobody in my sights all day long. I was in my own area code and he (Truex) was in his own zip code. … We just finished second here today, just like we did last year.”
Rookie Chase Elliott was third ahead of Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth.
Joey Logano was sixth, the final car on the lead lap, while Johnson rallied through traffic over the final 100 miles to finish seventh.
Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon completed the top 10.
While 12 drivers advanced into the second round of the playoffs, Tony Stewart, Larson, McMurray and Chris Buescher were the four who were eliminated as the Round of 16 came to a close.
Stewart was the closest of the four to moving on, but finished 13th and came 11 points short of moving on in his final full-time Sprint Cup season.
Larson’s hopes were dashed after a battery problem and subsequent pit road penalty, along with his flat tire just before halfway, left him six laps down and out of contention. He finished 25th.
“Our Target Chevy has been good every week. We’ll go out and try and win some races,” Larson said. “Even though we’re not in the next round we still have a shot at finishing fifth in points. So we’re gonna try our best to run as far up in the points as we can.”
Buescher was the underdog entering the Chase after stealing a rain-shortened win at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in August, but he and his Front Row Motorsports team finished 23rd on Sunday. The final result left Buescher a full 40 points behind the cutoff line.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series opens the Round of 12 in the Chase playoffs on Oct. 8 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the running of the Bank of America 500.