Road to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup: Part 3

NASCAR

Martin Truex Jr. scored the win at Watkins Glen International in August. (Photo: Getty Images)

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

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Martin Truex Jr. had won three races during the first half of the season, the only Toyota driver to reach Victory Lane.

NASCARThat would change as the series moved to the flat one-mile oval at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin crashed in practice and was forced to a back-up Camry. But his team pulled together to win the Overton’s 301, giving Joe Gibbs Racing its first victory of 2017.

In the final laps of the race, Hamlin outran a fast-closing Kyle Larson – who secured the pole position but had to start at the back of the field after failing post-qualifying inspection. Larson’s second-place finish was the seventh time the Chip Ganassi Racing driver had been the bridesmaid in 2017.

Rounding out the top five were Truex, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. The top rookie finisher was Daniel Suarez in sixth place. Race Story | Race Results

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

One of the most prestigious races of the season was next on the schedule as Cup Series teams traveled to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Amid speculation about his future with Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne survived a rain delay, red flags and late restarts to claim his first Brickyard 400 victory.

Kahne parlayed a well-timed pit stop and a masterful overtime restart to notch the victory, ending a 102-race winless streak dating back to the 2014 season. He steered his No. 5 Chevrolet onto pit road for service late in the final stage and it paid dividends a short time later when a four-car crash along the frontstretch produced one of the day’s track-record 14 cautions.

NASCARWhen others pitted under yellow, Kahne advanced to the front with his new-found track position that made him a player down the stretch. His decisive restart came after two late cautions sent the race seven laps past its scheduled distance. Kahne lined up on the inside of Brad Keselowski and drove hard into the first turn, digging in on the low side of the track and charging into the lead he would not relinquish.

As Kahne stretched the advantage over Keselowski, a three-car incident behind him produced yet one more yellow flag. Kahne had already passed the overtime line on the backstretch, which made his victory official. Keselowski finished second with Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth completing the top five.

Pole winner Kyle Busch was seeking an unprecedented third straight Brickyard 400 win but was sidelined by an accident on a restart early in the final stage. He was side-by-side at the front of the field with Martin Truex Jr., who wiggled and then slid into Busch’s car – taking both drivers out of the race.

Two weeks after Kahne’s Indy win, Hendrick Motorsports would announce that he would not return in 2018 … to be replaced by William Byron. Race Story | Race Results


Pocono Raceway

With only six races left until the playoff field of 16 contenders would be finalized, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returned to northeastern Pennsylvania.

Kyle Busch ended his year-long winless streak in dominating fashion – starting from the pole, winning Stage 1 and leading a race-high 74 laps in claiming his 39th career victory. Busch passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin for his final lead 17 laps from the finish and kept the No. 18 Toyota in front the rest of the way to notch his first Cup Series win since the 2016 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, a 36-race dry spell.

Busch’s margin of victory was a whopping six seconds over runner-up Kevin Harvick. Martin Truex Jr. grabbed third place with Hamlin and Brad Keselowski completing the top five. Clint Bowyer won the second stage and finished sixth overall. Daniel Suarez was the highest-finishing rookie, in seventh place, and teammate Matt Kenseth ended the day in ninth place – putting all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers inside the top 10.

Ryan Blaney was seeking a season sweep at Pocono after winning in June but failed to lead a lap and finished 30th, two laps behind Busch at the checkered flag. Busch is the first Cup Series pole sitter to win at Pocono since Jimmie Johnson in 2013. Race Story | Race Results


Watkins Glen International

Martin Truex Jr. saved enough fuel to hold off a fast-closing Matt Kenseth on the final lap to claim his fourth win of the year.

Truex started third in the 37-car field and led a race-high 24 laps. He showed the way for the final three circuits after race leaders Brad Keselowski and then Ryan Blaney were forced to pit late for fuel. Truex’s margin of victory over Kenseth was .41 seconds with rookie Daniel Suarez, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer completing the top five. Blaney finished eighth and Keselowski was 15th in the final running order.

Pole winner Kyle Busch started fast – quickly moving out to a three-second advantage, leading the first 21 laps and winning the opening stage. But mid-race contact with Keselowski later sent him sliding off the track. Busch recovered to finish seventh.

After winning in June at Sonoma Raceway, Kevin Harvick placed 17th in his bid to sweep both Monster Energy Series road races. The last driver to accomplish that was Busch in 2008.

Despite falling one position short of his first victory of the year, Kenseth continued to keep a firm hold on the final playoff spot with four races left in the regular season. He led Bowyer by 28 points points heading into the next race at Michigan International Speedway…Race Story | Race Results



Michigan International Speedway

… where Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet split a pair of Toyotas on the final restart and charged up the middle of the racetrack – carrying the Chip Ganassi Racing driver to victory and moving him into some very select company.

Larson became just the third Cup Series competitor to win three straight races in the track’s 49-year history, joining Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and David Pearson.

The Furniture Row Racing tandem of Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones lined up on the front row for the day’s final restart. Larson was right behind in Row 2. At the drop of the green flag, he stormed past Jones to his left and boldly dispatched Truex to his right – driving off to his fourth career win. Three of those victories have come on the two-mile Irish Hills oval including a season sweep in 2017.

Larson started ninth and led only once, for the final two laps. His margin of victory over Truex was .39 seconds. Jones took third place with Ryan Newman and Trevor Bayne completing the top five. Pole winner Brad Keselowski won the first stage and led a race-high 105 laps before fading to 17th at the checkered flag.

Despite finishing only 24th, Matt Kenseth tightened his hold on the final playoff spot by adding three points to his advantage over Clint Bowyer, who was now 31 below the cutoff with three races left in the regular season. Race Story | Race Results


Bristol Motor Speedway

Bristol Motor Speedway was no match for Kyle Busch as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver collected three wins in a four-day stretch including the featured Monster Energy Series race. After winning Wednesday in the Camping World Truck Series, Busch returned to “Thunder Valley” to claim victory in Friday night’s XFINITY Series race. Then on Saturday, he got the best of rookie Erik Jones as well as the half-mile Tennessee oval, keeping the No. 18 Toyota in front over the final 56 laps and beating Jones to the checkered flag by nearly a second-and-a-half.

NASCARIt was the second time in eight years that Busch won all three races across NASCAR’s three national series in the same week at the same track. He first accomplished the feat in 2010, also at Bristol.

Jones did his best to deny Busch his “Tennessee Trifecta,” starting from the pole in the Cup Series headliner and leading a race-high 260 laps. They exchanged the lead three times during the final stage before Busch asserted himself down the stretch. After laboring through much of the regular season without a Cup Series victory, the 2015 champion seemed to be building momentum for another title run with two wins in four starts.

Denny Hamlin finished third and Matt Kenseth was fourth, giving Toyota a sweep of the top four spots. Kurt Busch completed the top five in his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

With just two races left in the regular season, Jamie McMurray led Clint Bowyer by 58 points in the fight for the final playoff spot. Paul Menard finished 16th, just two days before his 37th birthday. Race Story | Race Results


Darlington Raceway

Years from now, if Darlington Raceway continues to celebrate “Throwback Weekend” honoring the history and heritage of the sport, some driver from some team will most certainly paint his racecar red and white to honor Denny Hamlin’s dramatic drive to victory in 2017 at “The Track Too Tough to Tame.”

Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team could have thrown in the towel and settled for whatever came their way after the veteran driver made a rookie mistake – skidding past the entrance to pit road as he prepared for his final stop of the night. Hamlin surrendered the race lead and fell 20 seconds behind new leader Martin Truex Jr.

But Hamlin grabbed the wheel and with a determined charge to the finish, pushed his car back toward the front and steadily clipped seconds from Truex’s lead as the laps wound down. As Hamlin closed to within a few car lengths of Truex, his advance to victory seemed inevitable.  And as Truex’s fate was further sealed when he popped a right-front tire that forced him off the pace, Hamlin took the white flag and motored on to his second Southern 500 victory in eight years.

Runner-up Kyle Busch was 2.5 seconds back at the checkered flag. Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Erik Jones completed the top five. Truex, who had won the first two stages and led 76 laps, was credited with eighth place. Pole winner Kevin Harvick led 22 laps and finished ninth.

The win gave Hamlin and JGR a weekend sweep at the famed South Carolina oval. He also won the XFINITY Series race the day before. Race Story | Race Results



Richmond Raceway

Kyle Larson left race leader Martin Truex Jr. and the rest of the field behind on the night’s final restart, winning the Federated Auto Parts 400 to close the 2017 regular season.

NASCARTruex had won the second stage and led a race-high 198 laps before the sixth caution led to the decisive restart in which Larson darted off to his fourth win of the year. After losing the lead, Truex’s night got even worse when contact with Denny Hamlin on the last lap sent him into the wall – leaving the regular-season champion with a 20th-place finish.

Joey Logano went into the race needing a win to qualify for the playoffs but fell one position short in second place. Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Hamlin completed the top five. Kevin Harvick made his 600th Cup Series start and finished 15th.

The 16-man post-season field was set and coming out of the weekend, it looked exactly like it did going into the weekend. The 16 drivers projected to race for a championship were the same 16 who would open the playoffs the following weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Truex and Larson each won four races during the regular season, but the 53 playoff bonus points piled up by Truex helped earn him the No. 1 seed. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson began his quest for a record eighth title as the No. 5 seed, behind Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Notable drivers who did not qualify for the playoffs included Logano, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Race Story | Race Results


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