NASCAR’s elite responded loud and clear with Martin Truex Jr leading the parade in Sunday’s Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway. Truex led 64 laps to snap a 28-race winless streak dating back to the weeknight race at Martinsville last year.
Truex was ecstatic over the radio before completing the final lap, beating Joey Logano by 1.698 seconds. It marked Joe Gibbs Racing’s second win of the year. But also becoming the fifth different Cup winner in as many races.
The 2017 Cup champion got out of his No. 19 machine with jubilation after the struggles they’ve had over the past year. Truex’s 28th Cup win was truly a team effort after brushing the Turn 2 wall on Lap 67. Their motivation of overcoming adversity blossomed, and it showed from Truex’s emotions.
“Our car was super tight to start off the race,” Truex said. “It wasn’t any good at all. I can’t believe I’m standing here right now. What an effort by my guys on the team. It’s just unreal.
“To hit the fence, to go to the back, to fix it, to make some huge adjustments and for us to be able to run as good as we did at the end there, I’m speechless.”
Coy Gibbs and James Small
Gibbs never sensed anything boiling over that would’ve affected the No. 19 team. Last year, Truex and Small only won the weeknight race at Martinsville. Even if Truex scored 22 top-10s, it was a disappointing season by many.
In Gibbs’ eyes, Sunday’s win showcased Small has adapted into the winning formula Truex seeks every race.
“Last year we had a lot of ones we should have won, honestly,” said Gibbs. “There’s obviously is going to be an adjustment period. I think he knew that. I think James knew that. It’s fun to see him start clicking here.”
Small felt the positives certainly outweigh the negatives that’s plagued them in the past.
“Nobody remembers who finished second or third,” said Small. “We had really strong races last year and just didn’t execute. Wins are what matters in this sport. It’s definitely a relief to get one this early. Make sure we’re locked into the Chase (Playoffs).
“Now we can just concentrate on refining what we do every week, try to get more wins, more bonus points. That’s ultimately in the Playoffs where we struggled, was the bonus point count. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction for that.”
The bottom lane was Logano’s choice every time he led the field. It was the final restart that led to another frustrating loss after leading a race-high 143 laps.
“Surprised (Truex) was able to hang with me on that start,” Logano said regarding the final restart. “I felt like he had a good start too, but I had a good one on the bottom and I thought the amount I short-cutted it in the dogleg I thought, ‘Boy, I’m gonna have him cleared.’
“Then, we went in the corner it was still door-to-door and when your door-to-door the outside car has control of you,” Logano continued. “I’m pretty sure even if I beat him on that start, he was still gonna hound me and probably get by me. They had the best car. They tuned it in.”
While second “really stinks,” Logano couldn’t ignore how proud he was with his No. 22 team on a solid performance.
“We did a great job all day execution-wise, staying up front, good pit stops, getting us back up front when we lost our track position, and, overall, a solid day,” Logano commented. “We had a stage win and some points in second place, so we’ll take it. It’s not a win. Second hurts, but we’ll move on and go to Atlanta.”
Denny Hamlin scored his fourth top-five of the season after another strong afternoon. He led 33 laps and extended his regular season points lead by 39 points over Brad Keselowski. After the race, he was pretty happy with the effort made by his No. 11 team.
“Obviously, we want to win with our Offerpad Toyota but certainly the short tracks is something we want to put a lot of emphasis on this year,” said Hamlin. “We just didn’t have the results on the short tracks that we wanted last year. Getting the first short track win here for JGR – 1, 3 is a good sign that we worked on the right things and we are headed in the right direction.”
The action began before the 312-lap could even commence. Three Hendrick Motorsports drivers (Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and William Byron) were sent to the rear for failing pre-race tech. Thus, they all had their cut out for, but it meant the action would get spicy.
It would be the case as they cracked the top-25 13 laps in with Larson leading the trio. Out front, pole sitter Keselowski led a couple of laps before Hamlin and Christopher Bell passed him.
Hamlin was in command before the competition caution came out on Lap 30. He would lose the lead on pit road after Keselowski’s Penske crew delivered excellent pit service.
Larson exited ninth but was busted for going too fast and was sent to the rear. Last Sunday’s winner ended up eighth in the stage, racking up three stage points.
Ryan Blaney went underneath Keselowski in Turn 3 to take the lead on Lap 43.
Moments later, Alex Bowman crashed in Turn 2 to bring out the second caution of the day. This happened after Bowman ran into the left rear quarter panel of Ross Chastain. An accordion effect ensued with Austin Dillon tapping Bowman, sending him around and hurt his day.
Elliott went from having a terrible car to now running in fifth in the closing portion of Stage 1. Clearly, the defending champion wasn’t messing around and determined that last November’s win was no fluke. He wound up staying there after the 75-lap stage.
Blaney wound up holding off a hard charging Logano, scoring the stage win in a Penske 1-2-3 effort.
Stage 1 Results: Blaney, Logano, Keselowski, Hamlin, Elliott, Harvick, Byron, Larson, DiBenedetto, Ky. Busch
Despite peaking on the bottom of Blaney late in Stage 1, Logano couldn’t clear him. On the bright side, his No. 22 crew had a flyer of stop and got him out front.
Further back, a lead lap Cody Ware slammed the lapped car of Anthony Alfredo on Lap 88. The incident sent Alfredo into the Turn 2 wall, ending his day. Ware’s car sustained significant damage from the contact, and it was game over for him as well.
Although Logano continued leading, but Larson was on a prowl. By Lap 129, he had gone by Blaney for the second spot and had a 3.5 second deficit to cut. Elliott on the other hand, had a tight car and began skidding with Joe Gibbs Racing making his day difficult.
Needing a steering realignment, Elliott wouldn’t have to wait long as green flag stops began a handful of laps later. Once the cycle of pit stops ended, Logano was still the guy to beat after passing Corey LaJoie on Lap 155.
Sour grapes went to Larson and Kyle Busch, who were penalized after their pit stops. Larson was too fast again while Busch had an uncontrolled tire. The later was given the black flag with white cross until he finally served his penalty. Larson ended up just inside the top-30 but rallied to finish 13th in the stage.
Meanwhile, nobody was a genuine threat to Logano’s stage dominance. The only Kryptonite for Logano were tail end of the lead lap cars of Chastain and Daniel Suarez. Logano still had a comfortable lead on Truex, but it did get intense at the very end. Both Chastain and Suarez stayed on the lead lap.
Stage 2 Results: Logano, Truex Jr., Hamlin, Keselowski, Blaney, Harvick, Byron, Almirola, Elliott and Bell
Speeding penalties kept racking up after Elliott, Chastain and Aric Almirola were all caught. For Elliott, it was the second penalty of the afternoon.
Logano continued leading until 89 to go after Truex passed him on the bottom of Turn 3. Truex made most out of Logano’s slide job attempt on the lapped car of Quin Houff. It gave Truex some momentum to make his move on Logano and quickly began pulling away.
Pit stops would follow as Truex pitted with 59 to go, but the biggest benefactor was Larson. He was ahead of Hamlin and Logano after the cycle of stops, but Truex was still the leader. The margin was erased after Tyler Reddick’s right front went down and hit the wall, bringing out another caution.
Leaders pitted once more, and Team Penske ruled their pit stops again. Logano and Keselowski exited out ahead of Truex and Larson. Little did the Penske duo know, but Bubba Wallace stayed out and was indeed the leader.
Those circumstances set up a wild restart with Wallace choosing the inside lane. Once the green flag waved, Wallace and Logano nearly banged doors, giving Keselowski the top spot. Larson kept his car from spinning after dealing with Wallace in Turn 2.
Keselowski’s tenure in first didn’t last too long as Logano went by with 39 to go. A caution would later come out for Chastain turning Kyle Busch around in Turn 4, setting up the final restart with 25 to go.
The war was won by Truex, who passed Logano in Turn 1. Truex stick to the top and had stronger speed to get the job done, scoring his first win at Phoenix.
A victory may be foretelling of what’s to come when the series run here in November. Only this time, it’s for the championship which Truex pointed out, hoping he’ll be in the hunt.
“This has been a tough track for us,” Truex added. “We struggled here in the fall. We came here with a whole new mindset, a whole new focus on trying to figure this place out and I’ll be dammed if we didn’t do it. Hopefully, we can keep tuning on this thing and come back for the Final Four in November.”
Final Top 10 Results: Truex Jr., Logano, Hamlin, Keselowski, Elliott, Harvick, Larson, Byron, Bell and Blaney