Martin Truex Jr. overcame two early mistakes to win a wild playoff elimination race at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, an emotional victory for his Furniture Row Racing team following the death of a crew member the previous night.
Truex was already assured of advancing to the round of eight after winning a couple weeks ago at Charlotte. But after starting on the pole, the season's most dominant driver calmly overcame a restart violation and a loose tire early on to win for the seventh time this season.
Hours before the race, the Furniture Row team learned that fabricator Jim Watson had died Saturday night of a heart attack while in town for the playoff race. He was 55.
"We were racing for Jim today," Truex said. "He was a heck of a guy."
Kurt Busch finished second before a wave of playoff contenders headed by Ryan Blaney, whose car failed post-qualifying inspection. He quickly worked his way through the field from the 40th starting spot to finish third, easily making it within the playoff cutoff line.
Chase Elliott was fourth and Denny Hamlin finished fifth to punch their tickets to the next round. Kevin Harvick finished eighth to stay alive heading to Martinsville, while Kyle Busch finished 10th and Jimmie Johnson 11th — both of them making the cutoff line.
Brad Keselowski finished 13th after his win last week at Talladega sent him to the next round.
Kyle Larson blew his engine to spoil his chances of advancing, while a penalty on Matt Kenseth for having too many crew members of the pit wall following a wreck ended his championship hopes.
Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also were eliminated from the playoffs.
Truex had dominated the 1 1/2-mile track at Kansas for years before finally breaking through with a victory in the spring. And while he had nothing to lose on Sunday, there was still a feeling that Truex wanted to win one for his late crew chief and the rest of their team.
"I can't say enough about all these guys," Truex said. "Just really proud of them, and definitely racing with a heavy heart. Jim was a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Toyotas."
Larson began the race 33 points on the good side of the cut line, but he was forced to watch things play out after dropping a cylinder early in the race, then hearing his engine let go entirely.
His hopes improved when Erik Jones triggered a multi-car wreck on a restart with 70 laps to go, which collected McMurray and caused damage to Kenseth's car. The former champion thought he would be able to continue when he reached pit road, but seven crew members hopped over the wall for repairs.
NASCAR's damaged vehicle policy limits teams to six. The penalty is an immediate parking.
"I don't know what the rules are. It seems like we have a lot of stuff that is changed so often I can't keep up with it," Kenseth said. "You're not able to race anymore? I just don't get it."
The result left Larson hoping that Johnson, who started the day on the bubble, would falter. But despite two early spins, he managed to come home 11th to punch his ticket to the next round.
WIN OR ELSE: Stenhouse and McMurray, who both needed to win to advance, were involved in wrecks that ended their hopes. Stenhouse cut a tire and hit the wall with 93 laps left, while McMurray was near the front all afternoon before getting involved in the wreck that knocked Kenseth out.
"If we ever got to the lead," McMurray said, "we could have led the race for a while."
PLAYOFF OUTSIDERS: Kansas native Clint Bowyer spent much of the day in the top 10 before he was involved in the crash with 70 laps to go.
UP NEXT: The three-race round of eight begins next Sunday at Martinsville. Johnson won last year's race to punch his ticket to the finale at Homestead, where he won his seventh championship.
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