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.