Truex opens NASCAR's playoffs with win at Chicagoland

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

By DAN GELSTON

AP Sports Writer

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) Martin Truex Jr. stretched his arms to his side and waited for a shower of green slime , the colored goop traditionally poured over the heads of game-show contestants and A-list celebrities.

Add NASCAR race winner to the list.

"It's a lot funner to watch people get slimed than it is to get slimed," a smiling and sticky Truex said. "But it's definitely worth it to get that after the race."

Truex might have left the rest of the field green with envy that he was again the driver celebrating in victory lane.

Truex backed up his regular-season dominance with a victory Sunday in NASCAR's playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway that solidified himself as the driver to beat over the final nine races as he chases his first Cup championship.

He raced to his fifth victory of the season and earned an automatic berth in the second round of the playoffs, piling on more points in his bid to compete for the title in the finale at Homestead.

A driver with three Cup wins in his first 10 seasons, Truex has nine over the last two years for Furniture Row Racing.

"I think we all realize it's just a unique time in history, in all our lives, that this has come together," team owner Barney Visser said.

Truex was in cruise control over the final 55 laps and built a nearly 7-second lead over Chase Elliott to win at Chicagoland for the second straight season. Truex's car flunked inspection following the win last season and the No. 78 Toyota ran into more issues Sunday - the car needed four tries through pre-race inspection before it was cleared and Truex later overcame an early pit-road penalty. By the end, there was no doubt the path to the NASCAR championship goes through the 37-year-old Truex.

Elliott was second, followed by playoff drivers Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Truex again seemed right at home on the 1.5-mile track. Truex had wins this season on 1.5-mile tracks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.

Truex had a win snatched from him last week at Richmond because of a late caution and he ended up crashing. He and his team looked downright miserable accepting the regular season title trophy.

"After last week, he was like, I want to go to Chicago and lap the field twice," crew chief Cole Pearn said. "I think he was pretty motivated this whole weekend."

Truex insisted he forgot about the debacle at Richmond the moment he boarded the plane home. As the closing laps ticked off a week later, Truex said he refused to think another potential win would roll off the rails.

"I don't really care a whole lot about statements. I'm just having fun," Truex said. "It's important to come here and not let the pressure get to you, and I think we did a good job with that."

Truex's longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex , was by his side in victory lane, even as she battles a recurrence of ovarian cancer .

"I'm a lot better driver these days because of her and what she's been through," he said. "We've learned a lot about life together. We continue to face every challenge head on and not scared."

Pollex was smart enough to step aside from the slime. The Furniture Row Racing crew was bathed in the ooze and champagne during a raucous victory lane celebration.

Truex entered the playoffs at the No. 1 seed with four wins, 18 stage wins and he totaled a whopping 53 bonus points that he can keep through the first three playoff rounds.

Truex leads the standings by 27 points over Larson.

Here are other items of note from Chicagoland:

BUSCH'S RUN

Kyle Busch led 85 laps from the pole and won the first stage as he positioned the No. 18 Toyota as the car to beat.

Busch was forced to pit because of a loose tire, then his Joe Gibbs Racing crew was penalized for going over the wall too soon, which would drop him back to 30th. He ended the second stage a lap down and finished 15th.

Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, had won his 12th stage win of the season.

Busch's pit crew was swapped for teammate Daniel Suarez's crew for the start of the playoffs.

"Just poor execution all around," crew chief Adam Stevens said . "Made a lot of mistakes on pit road and when you make back-to-back mistakes, it's tough to recover from it."

PLAYOFF DRIVERS

Brad Keselowski was sixth, Jimmie Johnson was eighth, Matt Kenseth ninth, Jamie McMurray 10th, Ryan Blaney 11th, Austin Dillon 16th, Kurt Busch 19th, Kasey Kahne 21st, Ryan Newman 23rd and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 25th.

BLOWN OUT

Chicagoland was site of the playoff opener for the final time. NASCAR will kick off the 10-race postseason next year at Las Vegas.

UP NEXT

Two races remain before the playoff field is cut to 12. The NASCAR postseason shifts to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the final fall race for the track. Hamlin won the summer race at New Hampshire and Harvick won the September race last season.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

Updated September 17, 2017

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