By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
Martin Truex Jr. received a penalty on the opening lap of the race for crossing the start/finish line in front of polesitter Denny Hamlin at the green flag. But 400 laps later Truex led the field across the line again – this time as the race winner of Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders at Richmond (Va.) Raceway.
The convincing 1.317-second margin of victory over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Christopher Bell marked Truex’s third win in the last five races at Richmond, his fourth win of the 2021 season and, most importantly, gave him that coveted automatic bid into the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Truex joins Hamlin, who won last week’s Playoff opener at Darlington, S.C. and Regular Season Champion Kyle Larson, who finished sixth on Saturday, as the only three drivers to have officially secured positions in the Playoffs’ Round of 12 that begins in two weeks at Las Vegas.
The first thing Truex did after climbing out of his winning No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was acknowledge the importance of the September 11 date to our country and thank the fans for showing their support on the solemn anniversary and for their patriotic support of the sport of NASCAR.
As for his early setback, “That was frustrating, I’m not going to lie,” Truex said of the race start. “But I knew we had a good enough car to overcome it. Just one of those things you have to put out of your mind and go race. A lot on the line tonight.
“But going to Bristol (Tenn.) next week without any worries is always fun,” he added with a smile.
Truex, who led a total of 80 laps, took the lead for good – pacing the field for the final 51 laps – following a series of green flag pit stops in the final portion of the race. Just prior to the pit sequence, another JGR teammate, Kyle Busch, had positioned himself to be a factor at the checkered flag. Instead, Busch received his second pit road penalty of the night – a speeding violation during his green flag stop with 55 laps remaining. At the time, it dropped him to 10th place, the last car on the lead lap after he had been out front for 39 laps just prior to the green flag stops. He ultimately finished ninth.
Last week’s winner Hamlin had been the strong car early, leading 100 of the opening 152 laps and a race best 197 on the night, winning both Stages. But the pit road sequence, lapped traffic and an awakened Truex forced Hamlin to play catch-up in the end.
“The whole JGR team had fast cars for all of us today. I really wish we had gotten two in a row, but regardless still a great day for the team,” Hamlin said.
Unlike last week’s Playoff opener at Darlington, when several of the 16 Playoff cars suffered setbacks and disappointing finishes, Saturday night those cars reminded why they are in position to challenge for a championship. Thirteen of the top 15 cars were driven by Playoff drivers.
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott finished fourth in a Hendrick Chevrolet and Team Penske’s Joey Logano was fifth in a Ford. Larson finished sixth, followed by the only non-Playoff driver among the top 10, Ross Chastain.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s driver Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney rounded out the top 10.
Playoff drivers Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola and Tyler Reddick finished 12th-15th. William Byron (19th), Michael McDowell (28th) and Kurt Busch (37th) rounded out the Playoff finishers.
Busch, who led laps early, suffered a tire problem that sent his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet hard into the Turn 1 wall only 40 laps into the race.
“Something happened with that left rear, it let go,” said Busch, who was running in the top-five at the time of his accident. “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.”
Despite the tough luck, Busch heads into Saturday night’s Playoff Round of 16 finale at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in a mathematical tie with Bowman for the 12th Playoff position – and last transfer position.
Reddick (-5), Byron (-18), Daytona 500 winner McDowell (-38) are currently outside the top-12, with four of the 16 cars eliminated from the Playoffs following Bristol’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Harvick is the defending winner of the Bristol Playoff race. Joey Logano won the 2021 race at the Bristol track’s inaugural dirt race in March. Kurt Busch has six previous wins at Bristol and his younger brother Kyle is the winningest active driver with eight victories.