JOLIET – The perfect finish to your Sunday afternoon?
How about a slime bath in victory lane?
“I just spent about five minutes in the bathroom, washing the green off my hands and face,” Martin Truex Jr. said after being doused in slime upon breezing to victory in the Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the opening act in the 10-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
“I remember watching Nickelodeon as a kid,” Truex continued. “People got slimed all the time, and I thought it was funny. You know, it was funnier to watch people get slimed than it is to get slimed yourself.”
But if slime comes with winning, he will take it every time. If there was any doubt about the favorite to win the Cup Series championship, Truex erased them with a dominant performance in his 12th career victory and series-leading fifth of 2017.
Except for one lap when Kevin Harvick led during a pit stop, Truex was in clean air from lap 190 through the finish of the 267-lap grind at the mile-and-a-half D-shaped oval.
Sixteen drivers qualified for the playoffs. Four will be eliminated after three races, four more after the subsequent three and four after the next three, with a four-driver, one-race shootout at Miami-Homestead determining the champion.
Truex also won the race at Chicagoland Speedway that opened the 2016 playoffs. He came to Joliet with 2,053 points this season, 20 ahead of second-place Kyle Larson. With Sunday’s victory, he extended the cushion to 27 over Larson and 35 over Harvick. His victory means automatic advancement to the Round of 12.
Chase Elliott ran a strong race and finished second, 7.179 seconds behind Truex, with Harvick taking third. Both were among the leaders for a majority of the race.
Denny Hamlin was fourth, Larson fifth and Brad Keselowski sixth as playoff drivers filled the first six finishing slots. The first non-playoff driver to break through was Joey Logano in seventh. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Blaney, all playoff qualifiers, claimed the next four spots.
Keselowski and Kyle Busch now are 41 points behind Truex. Elliott is 43 back and Hamlin 44 behind.
Early in the race, Busch was dominant. He led 78 of the first 80 laps to win the first stage. The second stage ended at lap 160 with Elliott on top. Leaders after the first two stages receive a playoff point each, with the winner getting five.
However, Busch developed a tire problem and had to pit soon after the restart, then was penalized for crew member(s) over the wall too soon. When the smoke cleared, he was in 30th place. He spent the rest of the day coming tantalizingly close to getting back on the lead lap but could not quite get there.
He was less than thrilled. He was employing Suarez’s former crew for the first time. Was the different crew the problem, or something else?
“Oh, well, move on to next week,” he responded. “Move on, that’s all we can do.”
All was not well for Truex early on. He received a penalty for speeding into the pits and had an issue with a loose lug nut. He was coming off two consecutive races where he could have won but for some misfortune late.
“The car was not where wanted it early in the race, and the speeding penalty put us behind,” Truex said. “Last year we had a tire unravel here and had to make up for that.
“This year, it wasn’t about making a statement after last week. I just felt like we could run almost anywhere on the track and make almost identical lap times. Our car was really fast, especially on the last restart.”
Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, noted the speed Busch had, especially early.
“The 18 [Busch] definitely was better than us on the first couple runs,” Pearn said. “When we had some trouble, we were fortunate enough to overcome it. We were lucky enough to stay on the lead lap.
“Martin [Truex] did an unbelievable job driving through the field in that second stage. We were confident we were better than the 4 [Harvick] and 24 [Elliott], especially on the long runs. But if the 18 had gotten back on the lead lap, they would have been a challenge.”
Elliott felt similarly about Truex.
“It was a pretty uneventful race for the most part,” Elliott said. “Typically when that happens, the better cars end up near the front. I’m not sure about the 18 [Busch]. But I wasn’t going to beat the 78 [Truex] without some luck. If you get in front of him on an eight- or 10-lap run after a restart, sure, I’d have a chance. But I wasn’t going to get behind him and pass him in eight laps.”
Nor was anyone else.