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Martin Truex Jr. survives as playoff elimination race brings high drama to Kansas

Tod Palmer, The Kansas City Star on

Published in Auto Racing

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- NASCAR's multitude of stakeholders decided to swap weekends for the playoff races at Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway during the offseason.

Drivers hated that the crapshoot on the most dangerous -- or exciting, depending on your perspective -- track in auto racing served as the final word with respect to yearly championship fates.

Instead, the Hollywood Casino 400 would serve as the cutoff that pared the field of contenders to eight drivers. But that didn't lead to any less drama Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

History will record Martin Truex Jr., who also won the spring race and claimed the pole Friday, as the race winner, but it was the ever-shifting bubble for playoff advancement that provided the day's real drama.

It all started two days earlier actually, when playoff contender Ryan Blaney was sent to the back of the field after failing a post-qualifying inspection.

But Blaney, who started the day in ninth place and nine points ahead of Jimmie Johnson for the final elimination spot, showed in the opening laps that speed wouldn't be an issue for him.

Blaney carved his way through the field with ease and finished third, reaching the round of eight with ease.

His relatively drama-free afternoon at Kansas proved to be the exception.

Kyle Larson entered third in points, behind only Truex and Brad Keselowki -- both of whom clinched spots in the round of eight with wins during the previous two weeks.

It would take a disaster of epic proportions for Larson to be eliminated.

Epic disaster started on lap 66.

An electrical issue, which severely limited horsepower in the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, forced Larson to make an unscheduled stop and he fell three laps back -- below the all-important cut line for the playoff elimination.

Ten laps later, Larson's motor blew and took with it his championship hopes.

At least, that was the assumption until three straight cautions shuffled the field dramatically, including an 11-car wreck that eliminated two playoff contenders.

Seven-time Cup Series champion Johnson started the final stage on the wrong side of the playoff-elimination cut.

His hopes took a massive hit on lap 188 when he got loose coming off turn four, sending the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet skidding across the frontstretch landscaping.

Johnson, who was running 10th at the time, restarted 27th but spun again before getting up to minimum speed, bringing out another caution.

During that restart, Truex's Furniture Row teammate, Erik Jones, got loose off turn two and took out Jamie McMurray, a playoff contender, and Daniel Suarez as he rolled up the track into the wall.

"I just lost it," Jones said. "It's unfortunate."

Before the cascading collisions ended, there were 11 cars collected in the carnage, including Matt Kenseth, who was battling with Johnson for the eighth and final playoff berth at the time.

Kansas favorite and Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer also was involved in the wreck along with Danica Patrick, Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger, Brett Moffitt, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.

Jones, McMurray, Suarez, Patrick and Newman all were treated and released at the infield care center.

The wreck, which led to a 10-minute red flag as crews cleaned up debris on the track, was only the tip of the iceberg.

Trying to repair the extensive damage to the No. 20 DeWalt Toyota, Kenseth was disqualified for having seven crew members over the wall on pit road.

Under race conditions, the penalty for such an infraction sends the offending car to the back of the field, but a new NASCAR rule for 2017 institutes a 5-minute crash clock.

When a car is on the crash clock, violation of the seven-man rule results in immediate disqualification.

Kenseth, 45, who learned in July he wouldn't return to Joe Gibbs Racing, was running 15th and was in position to reach the round of eight, but his title hopes ended in that moment.

While safe in terms of advancing, even Truex dealt with his share of drama.

He led the first 35 laps, which allowed him to join the exclusive 2,000-lap club for a single season, but a restart violation sent him to the back of the field.

Another unscheduled pit stop early in stage two cycled Truex back in the field again, but he stalked his way back into contention with a smart pit strategy and the run of cautions put him in position to repeat as the winner at Kansas.

Truex claimed the checkered flag with a heavy heart after Furniture Row Racing road-crew fabricator Jim Watson died Saturday after suffering a heart attack during a go-kart outing with other crew members.

(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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