Road to the Monster Energy Cup: Part 4


The playoffs started at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)


This is the fourth of a five-part series recapping the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. See Also: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Chicagoland Speedway

After rolling through the regular season with four wins and an eye-popping 53 bonus points, Martin Truex Jr. opened the playoffs in much the same fashion at Chicagoland Speedway - leading the final 55 laps and beating runner-up Chase Elliott to the checkered flag by more than seven seconds.

It was Truex’s second straight victory on the mile-and-a-half Joliet, Ill., oval. He’s the first Cup Series driver with back-to-back wins there since Kevin Harvick doubled up in 2001 and 2002. And speaking of Harvick, he finished third after leading the race four times for 59 laps. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson completed the top five.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson opened defense of his 2016 crown with an eighth-place finish on his 42nd birthday. Kyle Busch started from the pole, won the first stage and led a race-high 85 laps. But he was penalized early in the second stage for crew members going over the wall too soon on a pit stop, leading to a 15th-place finish for the No. 3 seed. The miscue was noteworthy since Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team had swapped pit crews with Daniel Suarez following the conclusion of the regular season. With Busch’s former crew in his pits for this race, Suarez drove to a 12th-place finish.

Truex and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team had now won five races in 2017. Four of the victories came on 1.5-mile ovals including Las Vegas, Kentucky and Kansas Speedway. Four of the remaining nine races of the post-season would be run on those intermediate-sized ovals. Race Story | Race Results

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Kyle Busch made it look easy - starting from the pole, winning the second stage and leading a race-high 187 laps as he charged into the second round of the playoffs. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was largely unchallenged throughout the second half of the race, leading all but three of the final 150 laps and beating runner-up Kyle Larson to the finish by 2.6 seconds.

NASCARBusch joined Martin Truex Jr. with a guaranteed spot in the second round of the post-season that would open two weeks later at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Matt Kenseth finished third in New Hampshire, giving JGR two of the top three spots. Brad Keselowski ran fourth and Truex, who won Stage 1, completed the top five.

How dominant was Busch’s Sunday drive? There were just six lead changes – a season low in the Monster Energy Series – among only three drivers: Busch, Larson and Truex. The race was slowed by six cautions for 32 laps.

The win was Busch’s 41st and his third in New Hampshire. The two others came in 2006 and 2015. Joe Gibbs leads all Cup Series team owners in victories at New Hampshire with 11. Denny Hamlin, one of Busch’s JGR teammates, finished 12th in his bid for a season sweep on "The Magic Mile" after winning there in mid-July. Race Story | Race Results

Dover International Speedway

Kyle Busch spent the closing laps in relentless pursuit of leader Chase Elliott and finally swept past him on the outside as they took the white flag, winning his second straight race of the post-season and charging into the next round.

Elliott was strong throughout the final stage, leading all but 23 laps including a stretch of 59 that carried him to the threshold of what would have been his first Cup Series win. But Busch’s late rally erased a four-second deficit and carried the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team into the second round of the playoffs that would open the following weekend in Concord, N.C.

Busch's margin of victory was .35 seconds over Elliott. Eleven-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson fell two spots short of becoming a 12-time Dover winner. Pole sitter Martin Truex Jr. grabbed fourth place. Kyle Larson won Stage 2, led three times for 137 laps and finished fifth.

It was a post-season elimination race with four of the original 16 title contenders trimmed from the field: Ryan Newman, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch. Newman was the highest-seeded driver in that group at No. 11. He missed advancing by a mere two points despite a respectable 13th-place finish in the race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. held on to get the last spot in the second round after finishing only 19th - six positions behind Newman. It was an early birthday present for the Roush Fenway Racing driver, who would turn 30 the next day. Race Story | Race Results

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Martin Truex Jr. opened the second round of the 2017 playoffs the same way he began the first round a month earlier - with a trip to Victory Lane. Truex smoothly managed a pair of late restarts, including one in overtime, driving away to his sixth victory of the season and securing a spot in the semifinal round of the Monster Energy Series Playoffs.

NASCARTruex led twice for 91 laps, keeping his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota in front over the final 57 trips around the mile-and-a-half North Carolina oval. His margin of victory over runner-up Chase Elliott was nine-tenths of a second. Kevin Harvick won the first two stages and led a race-high 149 laps en route to a third-place finish overall. Pole winner Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray completed the top five.

Playoff participants swept those top five spots and grabbed seven of the first eight with Jimmie Johnson running seventh and Ryan Blaney eighth. Joe Gibbs Racing rookie Daniel Suarez was the highest-finishing non-title contender, in sixth place.

Austin Dillon, who won the year’s first race at CMS in late May, finished 16th this time around in his bid for season sweep. All but four of the 40 starters were running at the finish. Truex started 17th. That’s the farthest back a fall race winner has qualified at Charlotte since Brad Keselowski lined up 23rd in 2013. Race Story | Race Results

Talladega Superspeedway

Brad Keselowski charged past race leader Ryan Newman on the final lap and drove to victory at Talladega, storming into the semifinal round of the 2017 playoffs that would begin two weeks later at Martinsville Speedway.

NASCARKeselowski started sixth in the 40-car field and led just seven laps. But he had his No. 2 Team Penske Ford in front when it counted most, taking the checkered flag first to snap Toyota’s four-race post-season winning streak. Keselowski’s margin of victory over runner-up Newman (Chevrolet) was two-tenths of a second. Three more Fords followed in the top five driven by Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano (Keselowski’s teammate) and Aric Almirola.

The race was red-flagged three times in the final 15 laps for cleanup after accidents that contributed to a record-tying 11 cautions on the sprawling Alabama oval. The last of those was triggered when Chase Elliott stuck the nose of his car between Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson coming out of the next-to-last restart. He clipped Suarez’s rear bumper which lit the fuse on a six-car wreck in Turn 3.

Elliott, who started on the front row, did not complete the 500 miles and finished 16th. The 11 cautions matched the track record that was set in 2004. There were just 14 cars running at the finish.

Pole sitter Dale Earnhardt Jr., a six-time Talladega race winner, led once for seven laps before finishing seventh in his final start there. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. placed 26th in his bid for a season sweep after winning in May. Race Story | Race Results

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