DOVER, Del. (AP) — Martin Truex Jr. watched season after empty season as other drivers hoisted trophies and celebrated championships and wondered if he was running out of time to become a winner.
Bad cars, bad teams, bad luck.
Whatever the cause, Truex was a journeyman driver seemingly doomed to a mediocre career. Now, what quantifies as a downer in Truex’s career rebirth is that he failed to actually sweep the first round of the Chase — but two of three is pretty dominant.
“We’re not messing around, I guess,” Truex said. “We are here to get it done.”
Truex’s late-season surge extended Sunday at Dover International Speedway for his second victory in the first three Chase races. Truex won for the fourth time this season in the No. 78 Toyota and paired this Chase win with his opening victory at Chicagoland.
“Kind of a bonus win,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “We didn’t need it all.”
Well, plenty of other Chase drivers did.
Tony Stewart finished 13th and the three-time NASCAR champion was knocked out of contention in the first elimination race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Chris Buescher and Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray also dropped out of the Chase. The field was sliced from 16 drivers to 12.
Austin Dillon finished eighth and moved from outside the points cutoff of the Chase to a transfer spot and advanced to the next round.
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch joined Truex and Dillon in the next round that opens at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch was second, followed by Chase Elliott, Keselowski, Kenseth and Logano — the only five other cars that finished on the lead lap.
Truex won his first career Cup race at Dover in 2007 and didn’t win again until 2013. But his career took off in his second year at Furniture Row Racing and he used a win at Pocono last year to make the Chase and become one of four drivers racing for the championship in the finale.
His career absolutely exploded with FRR and Toyota this season. Truex led a stunning 392 laps in a Coca-Cola 600 victory and then won at Darlington just two races before the Chase opened. He has led at least 140 laps in three of the last four races.
“The last month has just been ridiculous,” he said.
Harvick won last week at New Hampshire and was the only other driver to earn an automatic berth in the second round.
Here are other items of note from Dover:
Stewart, the 2002, 2005 and 2011 Cup champion, will retire at the end of the season without a fourth championship.
“I’ll tell you one thing, this one race, whatever happens, is not going to define the season this team has,” Stewart told his team over the radio.
He fell just short of keeping a drive for four alive.
“We kept making it better all day. That is as good as we had,” he said.
Ganassi went from two Chase drivers to none.
Larson’s race turned into a disaster early when the No. 42 Chevrolet lost power. His Chevy was pushed to pit road and a battery was changed. He then had to serve a pass-through penalty for having too many crew members over the wall during the pit stop.
Larson, one of the top, young drivers in the sport, had held the final transfer spot entering the race.
Jamie McMurray saw his Chase end at Dover for the second straight season. He battled problems in the No. 1 Chevy for most of the race before he engine blew near the halfway point. McMurray was 13th and hoped to race his way into the next round. He held the final transfer spot heading into last year’s race and lost his spot to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
FIRST TO (ALMOST) WORST
Harvick had to take a deep breath in thanks that he won last week at New Hampshire or he would have faced sure elimination. Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet had a broken track bar early in the race that sent the car to the garage. Harvick returned more than 40 laps off the pace and finished 37th. Harvick, the 2014 Sprint Cup champion, had never finished last in a race in his career.
JUNIOR AND JEFF
Earnhardt watched the race from atop the pit box for the first time since his season ended in July because of a concussion. Jeff Gordon finished 10th in Junior’s regular 88 Chevrolet ride. Gordon, who had retired at the end of last season, has one more race left subbing for Earnhardt later this month at Martinsville.
Daniel Suarez won the Xfinity Series delayed a day by rain to kick off 600 miles of racing. NASCAR ran its first Xfinity-Cup doubleheader since April 25, 2010, at Talladega Superspeedway.
The second round of the Chase opens at Charlotte and Logano is the defending race winner.