JOLIET, Ill. — Martin Truex Jr. was a lap down after he had to make an unscheduled pit stop for a completely unraveled tire.
Truex could have cursed his bad luck. He could have lost his cool. Instead, he took a different approach.
“The mindset was, all right, this isn’t good, this is bad,” he said. “I really wish this didn’t happen, but it did. How are we going to overcome it?”
One furious closing charge was enough.
Truex surged to the front on a late re-start and pulled away to give Furniture Row Racing a NASCAR Sprint Cup playoff-opening victory Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
“I’ve had a lot of practice at it,” Truex said about the on-track obstacles. “I think my approach really changed two years ago when (girlfriend) Sherry (Pollex) got diagnosed with cancer. My approach to all those things changed and made me a better driver.”
NASCAR announced after the race that Truex’s No. 78 Toyota failed the laser inspection, but the infraction was not at the level of negating the victory for Chase qualification purposes. Truex is expected to receive a point penalty this week.
Rookie Chase Elliott appeared on his way to an easy win until Michael McDowell blew a tire and spun out, prompting a caution with five laps left.
Elliott and Truex came in to pit for tires, with Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Chase contender Carl Edwards staying on the track.
Truex restarted fourth and Elliott fifth, and Truex quickly got to the front and held off Joey Logano on the final lap for his third victory of the season. Truex is guaranteed to move on when the Chase field is cut from 16 to 12 in two weeks.
Truex, whose team gets technical support from Joe Gibbs Racing, made the last four in the 2015 Chase. His 2016 season started with a near miss at the Daytona 500 and a Coca-Cola 600 win.
Pollex is now in remission after battling ovarian cancer.
“You have to understand, this isn’t the end of the world.” Truex said of racing setbacks. “We can overcome it. That’s what we did today.”
Elliott, a rookie, finished third, followed by Blaney and Chase driver Brad Keselowski, who sits second in points.
“It’s not yours until it’s over,” the 20-year-old Elliott said. “That’s part of life, man. You’re not dumb. We’ve all watched this stuff long enough to know these races don’t go green that long.”
Jimmie Johnson dominated the middle of the race, leading 118 laps, until Elliott got by him on lap 176 of 267.
Johnson was running second when he was caught speeding on pit road during the last green-flag stop, yelling “no way!” on his radio when told he had to serve a pass-through penalty. Johnson finished 12th, but his car also failed laser inspection and he could plummet in the points standings.
Here are a few more things to watch as the Chase moves to New Hampshire:
PENALTIES MATTER: NASCAR will announce the penalties for Johnson and Truex this week.
Based on recently released guidelines, Johnson could be docked 10 points. That would drop him into a tie for 12th.
Truex’s car also failed the laser inspection, but a points penalty won’t matter. The victory guaranteed him a spot in the second round and NASCAR said the infraction was not severe enough to negate the win.
FRESH TIRES RULE: When the final caution came out, the big question was whether or not to pit. Truex came in, then beat Elliott off pit road to set up the win.
“That was the right idea, the right call, because everybody took tires except three guys and they were sitting ducks,” Truex said.
CHEVY LIVES: Elliott nearly won and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson dominated the middle of the race. That after Hendrick and Chevrolet had a subpar regular season.
Truex wasn’t surprised.
“They lay in the weeds, sandbag. ‘Man, the Chevys are struggling. Toyotas are too fast. Got to take something from them,'” Truex said, smirking. “Here they come. That’s just how they play the game.”
THEY CAN PLAY NICE: There was no second round in the Tony Stewart-Ryan Newman feud. After Stewart wrecked Newman last week at Richmond, Newman ripped Stewart, leading to a Friday meeting with NASCAR executives.
Stewart had a quiet day, finishing 16th, while Newman was 19th.
Truex, though, was upset at Kevin Harvick for bumping him as they were competing to get back on the lead lap.
“Typically, it’s real easy not to run into somebody’s left rear on the straightaway,” Truex said. “As far as I can tell, he did it on purpose.”