From an opening lap penalty to Victory Lane, Martin Truex Jr. punched his ticket into the Round of 12 in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs after the former Cup champion led the final 51 laps and beat teammate Denny Hamlin by more than a second to win the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders at Richmond Raceway on Saturday, September 11.
The victory came as Truex, who lined up on the front row, started the race by serving a pass-through penalty on pit road after jumping the initial start of the race over teammate Hamlin. Despite the penalty, Truex remained on the lead lap and methodically worked his way towards the front before leading three times for a total of 80 of 400 laps and running away from his teammates and fellow Playoff contenders as he took another step forward in pursuing his second championship.
The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Cup event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Cup race. Kyle Larson, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular-season champion, was scheduled to start on pole position. However, his car failed pre-race inspection twice and as a result, he was sent to the rear of the field. With that, Denny Hamlin, winner of last weekend’s Cup Playoff opener at Darlington Raceway, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with teammate Martin Truex Jr.
Along with Larson, Cole Custer started at the rear of the field due to his car failing pre-race inspection twice. Garrett Smithley also dropped to the rear of the field due to a driver change.
During the pace laps, the crew members and fans raised their American flags and passed for a moment of silence to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks while honoring the first responders affected by the event.
When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Truex jumped ahead of teammate Hamlin at the start/finish line and took off with an early lead. Not long after, Truex was penalized with a restart violation for crossing the start/finish line and starting the race ahead of the pole-sitter. As a result, Truex surrendered the lead to teammate Hamlin while serving his penalty by driving through pit road.
Back on the track, Hamlin was out in front by four-tenths of a second over Kurt Busch while the Team Penske trio — Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski — were in the top five. Kevin Harvick was in sixth ahead of Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, all of whom were in the Playoffs. Teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott were in 11th and 12th followed by Kyle Busch while Ross Chastain and Austin Dillon, the first two non-Playoff contenders were in 14th and 15th. Michael McDowell was in 16th ahead of Ryan Preece, Matt DiBenedetto, Corey LaJoie and Chris Buescher.
By Lap 10, Hamlin was still leading by nearly six-tenths of a second over Kurt Busch followed by the Penske trio, Harvick and Bell. Another ten laps later, Hamlin extended his advantage to nearly two seconds over Kurt Busch.
When the competition caution flew on Lap 30, Hamlin continued to lead by nearly three seconds over Kurt Busch. By then, Harvick and Bell overtook Keselowski for fifth and sixth while Elliott was in the top 10. Meanwhile, Larson, who started at the rear of the field, was up in 19th while Truex, who was sent to the rear of the field following the start of the race, was in 29th, still on the lead lap.
Under the competition caution, the leaders pitted and Kurt Busch emerged with the lead following a quick four-tire pit stop, where he was followed by Hamlin, Logano, Harvick and Blaney. During the caution period, Kyle Busch was assessed a pit road penalty for removing equipment out of his box.
When the race restarted on Lap 36, Hamlin battled dead even with Kurt Busch as he led the following lap. Despite being pressured by Busch’s No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, Hamlin reassumed the lead as he was then pursued by Logano. While Blaney pressed Busch for more, Elliott was in fifth in front of Harvick and Keselowski.
Then on Lap 40, the caution flew when Kurt Busch, who was in third, spun and made hard contact into the Turn 1 outside wall after cutting a left-rear tire. The wreck was enough to end Busch’s night in the garage and put a huge dent to his Playoff hopes.
“I was just impressed with our speed and the way we unloaded and [the speed] we had in that first 30-lap run,” Kurt Busch said. “After the pit stop, something in the left rear wasn’t right. The guys said they got the tire tight. They made an adjustment and there was no rub and the left rear let go. I just radioed to them how loose the car was. Something happened with that left rear [tire]. It let go. It let go of our points and it let go of our whole season right now. I don’t know what we’re going to have to do at Bristol other than win. Now, we gotta dig out of this hole and give it out best.”
With the race restarting on Lap 47, Hamlin continued to lead over the field.
By Lap 55, Hamlin was leading by nearly a second over Blaney, with Logano, Elliott and Keselowski in the top five. Meanwhile, Larson and Truex were in 11th and 13th while Bowman, Byron, Kyle Busch and McDowell were in 15th, 19th, 23rd and 24th.
With five laps remaining in the first stage, Hamlin continued to lead by nearly four over Logano and Elliott while Blaney settled in fourth. Meanwhile, Larson was in fifth after overtaking Keselowski.
When the first stage concluded on Lap 80, Hamlin, who led all but four laps in the stage, collected his seventh stage victory of the season. Elliott prevailed over a late battle with Logano to settle in second while Larson made his way up to fourth ahead of Blaney. Chastain placed in sixth while Keselowski, Truex, Harvick and Almirola were scored in the top 10. By then, Reddick, Bell, Kyle Busch, Bowman, Byron and McDowell were in 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 21st.
Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Hamlin retained the lead following his pit service and ahead of Elliott, Logano, Larson, Keselowski and Blaney.
The second stage started on Lap 88. At the start, Hamlin launched ahead with a strong start on the inside lane while Elliott settled in second ahead of Logano.
Three laps later, Elliott muscled his No. 9 Kelley Blue Book Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE into the lead over Hamlin. Meanwhile, Chastain made a bold three-wide move on Larson and Truex through Turns 2 and 3 to move his No. 42 Moose Fraternity Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE to fifth.
At the Lap 100 mark, Elliott was leading by nearly six-tenths of a second over Hamlin, with Keselowski, Chastain and Logano in the top five. Larson was in sixth ahead of Truex, Blaney, Kyle Busch and Harvick. Almirola, Byron, Bowman, Bell and Reddick were in the top 16 while McDowell was in 18th area of Erik Jones and rookie Chase Briscoe. Meanwhile, Austin Dillon was in 15th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was in 17th, Matt DiBenedetto was in 21st, Ryan Newman was in 23rd, Bubba Wallace was in 25th behind Chris Buescher and Daniel Suarez was in 28th in between Ryan Preece and Justin Haley.
Twenty laps later, Elliott continued to lead by more than a second over Hamlin while Chastain, the highest non-title contender, was up in third. Teammates Keselowski and Logano were in the top five followed by Kyle Busch and Truex. Larson was back in eighth while Blaney and Harvick were in the top 10 ahead of Almirola, Byron, Bowman, Bell, Austin Dillon and Reddick.
Nearly 10 laps later, pit stops under green commenced as Daniel Suarez pitted followed by Reddick, Austin Dillon and Hamlin. Soon after, Elliott surrendered the lead to pit followed by Keselowski, Logano, Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Blaney, Stenhouse, Bowman and others. By Lap 135, Larson surrendered his temporary lead to pit.
By Lap 138, the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry piloted by Hamlin emerged with the lead after overtaking Elliott earlier. By then, Bell and DiBenedetto pitted under green.
Twelve laps later, Hamlin was leading by nearly half a second over Elliott while Chastain continued to run in an impressive third place. Kyle Busch and Logano battled for fourth while Truex, Larson, Keselowski, Almirola and Blaney were in the top 10 while Bowman, Harvick, Byron, Bell and Reddick were in the top 16. McDowell, meanwhile, was in 31st and two laps behind.
On Lap 162, Elliott made a bold three-wide move on Hamlin and the lapped car of Suarez to take the lead in Turn 3.
Thirteen laps later, Elliott was out in front by half a second over Hamlin while third-place Kyle Busch trailed by more than four seconds. Truex, Larson and Logano were up in fourth, fifth and sixth while Chastain fell back to seventh ahead of Almirola, Bell and Keselowski. Blaney, meanwhile, was in 11th ahead of Bowman, Byron and Harvick.
A few laps later, a second round of green flag pit stops occurred as Truex pitted followed by Hamlin, Corey LaJoie, Keselowski, Harvick, Byron, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon and Elliott. During the pit stops, Elliott slid through his pit box and was forced to reverse into his box while the jack was still on the car. The situation quickly went from bad to worse as the jack got wedged underneath Elliott’s car, which made it a long service for the No. 9 crew.
By Lap 187 and when the green flag pit stops concluded, Hamlin cycled back as the leader by more than two seconds over teammate Kyle Busch and nearly three seconds over his other teammate, Truex. Logano and Chastain were in the top five followed by Larson, Harvick, Keselowski and Byron. Bowman, Bell and Blaney were in 11th, 12th and 13th while Elliott was mired back in 15th, the last car on the lead lap.
At the halfway mark on Lap 200, Hamlin continued to lead by more than two seconds over teammate Kyle Busch while Truex, Logano and Chastain were in the top five. By then, 15 competitors were scored on the lead lap, 13 of whom were Playoff contenders.
Twenty laps later, Hamlin stabilized his advantage to nearly two seconds over teammate Kyle Busch while Truex, Logano and Larson remained in the top five ahead of Chastain. By then, Elliott, running in 15th, was a lap behind, though he kept leader Hamlin within his sights.
Near the Lap 225 mark, Hamlin lapped the 14th-place car of Austin Dillon, leaving Dillon to battle Elliott to be the first competitor scored a lap behind. On Lap 231, however, Hamlin lapped the 13th-place competitor, Byron.
When the second stage concluded on Lap 235, Hamlin, who has led 161 laps, claimed his eighth stage victory of the season. Teammates Kyle Busch and Truex settled in second and third followed by Larson, Logano, Bell, Chastain, Almirola, Bowman and Harvick. Meanwhile, Elliott managed to overtake Austin Dillon and teammate Byron to move up to 13th and place himself as the first competitor scored a lap down, thus gaining the free pass under caution.
Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Hamlin retained the lead following another stellar stop followed by Truex, Kyle Busch, Larson and Bell. During the pit stops, Chastain was busted with a pit road speeding penalty.
With 156 laps remaining, the final stage started. At the start, Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2-3-4 charge at the front, with Truex following in second ahead of Kyle Busch and Bell, who was under pressure from Logano.
Eight laps later, the caution flew when Bubba Wallace pounded the Turn 1 outside wall and limped back to pit road with right-front damage. Under caution, some like Keselowski pitted while the rest led by Hamlin remained on the track.
With 146 laps remaining, the race restarted. At the start, Hamlin took off with another strong start followed by Truex while Kyle Busch and Bell battled for third, thus placing all four JGR competitors at the front of the field. Despite making contact with his teammate, Bell moved his No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry into third place ahead of Kyle Busch’s No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry.
Down to the final 140 laps of the event, Hamlin was ahead by nearly three-tenths of a second over teammate Truex while teammate Bell was in third and teammate Kyle Busch was in fourth ahead of Larson and Logano. Meanwhile, Elliott was in 11th behind Kevin Harvick and Keselowski was in 13th in between Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon.
Nine laps later, Truex motored his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry into the lead for the first time of the evening.
Another 11 laps later, Truex pulled ahead by more than a second over teammate Hamlin while teammates Kyle Busch and Bell remained in the top four. Larson was in fifth followed by Chastain. Logano, Harvick, Elliott and Austin Dillon.
Under the final 110 laps of the event, another round of green flag pit stops commenced as Chastain, Suarez and Cole Custer pitted followed by Bowman, Kyle Busch, Keselowski, Harvick, Preece, DiBenedetto, Logano, Almirola, Blaney and others. Not long after, Truex surrendered the lead to pit along with Hamlin and Larson.
Down to the final 100 laps of the event and with the green flag pit stops occurring, Bell, who has yet to pit, was leading followed by Chastain, who was a lap down but had already pitted.
Two laps later, Ross Chastain, who notched a strong top-five result last weekend at Darlington Raceway, emerged with the lead by six-tenths of a second over Kyle Busch followed by Truex, Hamlin and Logano. By then, 13 competitors were scored on the lead lap, 11 of which were Playoff contenders, including Bell.
Another six laps later, Kyle Busch moved into the lead for the first time of the evening after overtaking Chastain.
With 75 laps remaining, Kyle Busch extended his advantage to more than two seconds over teammate Truex while teammate Hamlin trailed by more than five seconds in third. Elliott carved his way back to fourth ahead of Chastain while Bell worked his way back to sixth.
By then, Larson was back in ninth behind Logano and Harvick.
Under the final 60 laps, pit stops under green commenced again as Truex pitted along with Reddick, Keselowski, Blaney, Bowman, Harvick, Logano, Bell, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, the race leader. Soon after, disaster struck for Kyle Busch, who was forced to serve a drive-through penalty through pit road after he was caught speeding on pit road.
Down to the final 50 laps of the event, Truex emerged with the lead. By then, Larson pitted under green while Kyle Busch served his pit road penalty as the cycle of green flag pit stops were concluding.
With 40 laps remaining, Truex was out in front by more than six seconds over teammate Hamlin while teammate Bell was in third, trailing by nearly nine seconds. Elliott and Logano were in the top five followed by Chastain, Harvick, Austin Dillon, Larson and Kyle Busch, all of whom were on the lead lap. Blaney, meanwhile, was the first competitor a lap down followed by teammate Keselowski, Bowman, Almirola and Reddick.
Down to the final 20 laps of the event, Truex stabilized his advantage to nearly five seconds over teammate Hamlin while teammate Bell trailed by more than 10 seconds. While Elliott and Logano remained in the top five, Kyle Busch was in ninth behind Chastain, Larson and Harvick.
With 10 laps remaining, Truex remained as the leader by three-and-a-half seconds over teammate Hamlin. Behind, Larson and Chastain battled for sixth while Bell, Elliott and Logano remained in the top five.
Five laps later, Truex continued to stabilize his advantage to less than three seconds over his hard-charging, teammate Hamlin.
When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Truex was still leading by less than two seconds over teammate Hamlin. Having a comfortable advantage over the field, Truex was able to cycle back to the finish line and streak across the finish line to take the checkered flag and the win.
The victory was Truex’s first since winning at Darlington Raceway in May, fourth of the season, third at Richmond and the 31st of his NASCAR Cup Series career, keeping him in 28th place on the all-time wins list and one behind of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett. The win was also the eighth of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing. Above all, Truex advanced to the Round of 12 in the Playoffs, becoming the second to do so by winning in the Round of 16.
“It’s a big day,” Truex said on NBCSN. “It’s an important day in our history. I think all of us here – yeah, we’re proud to win. This car’s amazing, and there’s so many people to thank, but what a day to win on. It reminds you that it’s a privilege it is to get to come out here and do this. All these great fans that come out here, we couldn’t do any of these types of things without the men and women that take care of us and all the first responders, police officers, firefighters, the military, you name it. NASCAR’s very patriotic…Very proud of everybody to be able to do this today.”
“[The opening lap penalty] was frustrating, I’m not gonna lie,” Truex added. “I knew we’d have a good enough car to overcome it. It felt pretty good those first couple laps, so just one of those things. You got to put it out of your mind and you got to go race. We knew there was a lot on the line tonight, so very happy to get to do this and go to Bristol without any worries next week. It’s always fun.”
Hamlin, who is already guaranteed a spot in the Round of 12 after winning last weekend’s Playoff opening event at Darlington Raceway, settled in second place for the second time this season and for the second consecutive time at Richmond.
“Yeah, just a couple more [laps],” Hamlin, who led a race-high 197 laps, said. “Our pit stops were a little slow there and we lost about two or three seconds, maybe four on pit road on those two stops, and about a second and a half behind. We were coming, just we got off track with our car right there in the middle stages of the race, but overall [crew chief] Chris [Gabehart] and the team made great adjustments there at the end on the FedEx Camry. Just needed a couple more laps, that’s all. It’s the time where you got to bring your best. The whole [Joe Gibbs Racing] team, they brought fast cars for all of us today and I really wished we had gotten two [wins] in a row, but in regardless, still a great day for our team.”
Bell secured a strong third-place result followed by Elliott, who rallied from his pit stop miscue near the halfway mark, and Logano.
“I think, obviously, all of our Joe Gibbs Racing cars were extremely fast, so hats off to everyone back there at the shop, Toyota, [Toyota Racing Development] that gives us the resources that we need to come out here and do good,” Bell said. “We knew going into Richmond that this is one of our better racetracks, so we needed to capitalize on that and get all the points we could. We got some points there in Stage 2 and got a good finish out of it. Bristol is a really good racetrack for our company and me as a driver, but it’s a little bit – it’s just you can get caught up in stuff so easily at Bristol. It’s nice to have a buffer and hopefully, we can go to Bristol and have an uneventful event.”
“I was super proud of our effort,” Elliott said. “Our entire Kelley Blue Book team did a great job preparing for this week and then coming and executing a really fast car. I’m really proud of that. I hate our incident on pit road happened. I don’t know what I would have done any different. I guess let [Chastain] go is a safe thing, but it’s so close and always hard to tell kind of when they’re going to get done on the left side. I hate that. I thought I was long in the box and backed up out of a precautionary measure, but yeah, I hate that. I know that Kyle [Busch] and Martin [Truex Jr.] were really fast there at the end. I’m not sure if we would have had anything for them, but I sure would have liked to have found out…Nice rebound after last week. Everything about Darlington, that last weekend was miserable. Nice to come here and just put together a solid night. I felt like we performed at a really high level that I know we’re capable of every week. We perform like that the rest of the season, I think we’ll be just fine.”
“It seems like we had a little something for [the Gibbs cars] on the short runs,” Logano said. “I was hoping for, maybe, a caution, a good pit stop, good restart, maybe, I would’ve had something for them. Their long haul was tremendous. A lot of long runs tonight. That was where they were better than us. We were fifth place. Yes, it’s not a win, it’s not what we want, but it’s getting the points we need to get through to the next round. It’s a solid night. I think we were third in the first stage, fifth in the second and fifth as finished. Solid night at Richmond for the Shell/Pennzoil Mustang. I wanna win. I felt like this was one of our best shots to get it.”
Meanwhile, Kyle Larson finished sixth and clinched his spot for the Round of 12 in the Playoffs based on points.
“Yeah, it’s a lot better than we were here at Richmond earlier in the year,” Larson said. “At the beginning of the race, I thought I was going to have a really good shot to win, but we kind of lost the balance there and got it back a little bit there at the end. So, we probably finished where we deserved. [Kyle Busch] kind of had his problems, so maybe we finished one spot better. Not a bad day. To go to Bristol and know that we’re locked in is nice. We’ll try to be aggressive and get a win next week.”
Chastain came home in seventh as he emerged as the highest non-title contender for a second consecutive week. Harvick, Kyle Busch and Blaney completed the top 10.
Meanwhile, Alex Bowman, who won at Richmond in April, finished 12th and is tied with Kurt Busch for the 12th and final transfer spot heading into next weekend’s first Playoff elimination event at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I felt like we started the race struggling, didn’t have much drive and was also really tight in the center, so which do you work on, right?” Bowman said. “[Crew chief] Greg [Ives] and the guys did a really good job. We got our Ally No. 48 Camaro rolling really good at the end of Stage 2, drove it to like eighth, we were fast. Made no adjustments, put a set of Goodyears on it, and they weren’t the goodest of the Goodyears. That set [of tires] put us a lap down and really struggled to make up for that throughout the rest of the night. Unfortunately, we ended up 12th. Obviously, [I] could’ve ended up much worse…The guys right in front of us that we got to beat are all really good at Bristol. [I] Pretty much just got to go and try to win, but that’s a hole I dug myself last week when I smacked the fence on Lap 7…I feel like I can go get the job done. Just got to go do it.”
Keselowski, Almirola and Reddick finished 13th, 14th and 15th while Byron dropped back to 19th, two laps behind the leaders. Michael McDowell ended his long night in 28th, five laps behind.
There were 21 lead changes for eight leaders. The race featured five cautions for 30 laps. Only nine of tonight’s 37 starters finished on the lead lap.
1. Martin Truex Jr., 80 laps led
2. Denny Hamlin, 197 laps led, Stage 1 & 2 winner
3. Christopher Bell, 10 laps led
4. Chase Elliott, 58 laps led
5. Joey Logano
6. Kyle Larson, eight laps led
7. Ross Chastain, four laps led
8. Kevin Harvick
9. Kyle Busch, 39 laps led
10. Ryan Blaney, one lap down
11. Austin Dillon, one lap down
12. Alex Bowman, one lap down
13. Brad Keselowski, one lap down
14. Aric Almirola, one lap down
15. Tyler Reddick, two laps down
16. Chase Briscoe, two laps down
17. Daniel Suarez, two laps down
18. Matt DiBenedetto, two laps down
19. William Byron, two laps down
20. Ryan Newman, two laps down
21. Erik Jones, two laps down
22. Cole Custer, three laps down
23. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., three laps down
24. Chris Buescher four laps down
25. Ryan Preece, four laps down
26. Anthony Alfredo, four laps down
27. Justin Haley, four laps down
28. Michael McDowell, five laps down
29. Corey LaJoie, five laps down
30. BJ McLeod, seven laps down
31. Garrett Smithley, 11 laps down
32. Bubba Wallace, 12 laps down
33. Joey Gase, 13 laps down
34. JJ Yeley, 14 laps down
35. Quin Houff, 14 laps down
36. Josh Bilicki, 15 laps down
37. Kurt Busch – OUT, Accident, four laps led
Bold indicates Playoff contenders.
1. Denny Hamlin – Advanced
2. Martin Truex Jr. – Advanced
3. Kyle Larson – Advanced
4. Joey Logano, +40
5. Ryan Blaney, +28
6. Kevin Harvick, +25
7. Chase Elliott, +19
8. Christopher Bell, +17
9. Brad Keselowski, +13
10. Kyle Busch, +8
11. Aric Almirola, +3
12. Kurt Busch, +0
13. Alex Bowman, -0
14. Tyler Reddick, -5
15. William Byron, -18
16. Michael McDowell, -38
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will continue next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race and where the first round of eliminations will occur. The race is scheduled to occur on Saturday, September 11, at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.