AVONDALE – Martin Truex Jr. has had an illustrious NASCAR Cup Series career, with 27 victories and the 2017 Cup championship.
However, despite his success at NASCAR’s highest level, Truex had never broken through at Phoenix Raceway. And for most of Sunday’s Instacart 500 at the storied 1-mile tri-oval track, it appeared he would come away empty once again.
But with Joey Logano cruising way ahead of the pack on lap 283 of 312, Ross Chastain bumped into Kyle Busch’s No. 18 car and a caution flag came out. On the ensuing restart, Truex sped past Logano, who led 143 laps on Sunday, coming around him on turn No. 1.
Truex dominated the remaining portion of the race and broke two droughts with one victory. He snapped his 0-for-30 skid in Phoenix and ended a streak of 29 races without any Cup Series victory that dated to 2020 at Martinsville.
Another wild restart at Phx resulted in Martin Truex Jr. taking the lead. Lap 292 of 312 down. pic.twitter.com/R0YkJnC8O9
— Cronkite News: Phoenix Sports (@sportscronkite) March 14, 2021
“It feels great,” Truex said. “Honestly, it feels like a really great accomplishment to be able to do that … to be able to overcome the things we did, just really as a team never give up on it, keep working hard on things.
“Nobody lost their cool. I screwed up and hit the wall early on, damaged the right rear. Nobody was screaming and yelling or losing their mind. Just a good team effort. … Very special. It’s always nice to check a new track off the list.”
Truex, who drives for the Joe Gibbs Racing team, saw two teammates finish in the top 10 with him on Sunday. Denny Hamlin led 33 laps and finished third while Christopher Bell grabbed a ninth-place finish.
Hamlin praised his teammate for the victory and said his third-place finish at the short track gives him confidence going into the remaining races in the 2021 season.
“The 19 (Truex Jr.) has had a good car,” Hamlin said. “Their short track program, I think they stand out to me as one of our best short track teams at JGR. It was encouraging for me that we did run in the top five all day.
“We were not good on the short tracks last year. In 2019 I think our worst finish in the 11 (Hamlin) on a short track was fourth, maybe fifth. We had all top fives at every short track. Last year, if we could run sixth or seventh, it was probably a decent day for us. Hopefully this is a sign that we kind of worked on the right things and are heading in the right direction. But good for him for winning. I wish it was me.”
Truex is the fifth different driver to win one of the five races so far this season. The parity of 2021 comes in stark contrast to 2020, when Kevin Harvick and Hamlin won a combined 17 of the 36 races on the Cup Series schedule.
The win also qualifies Truex for the Cup Series playoffs, which conclude with the championship race at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.
“Nobody remembers who finished second or third,” said Truex’s crew chief, James Small. “We had really strong races last year and just didn’t execute. Wins are what matters in this sport. It’s definitely a relief to get one this early (and) make sure we’re locked into the (playoffs).”
Arizona drivers dashed opportunity at top-10 finish
Arizona natives Alex Bowman and Michael McDowell did not fare as well as they had hoped in the Instacart 500.
After three top-10 finishes in the first three races of the season, including a career-defining victory at the Daytona 500, McDowell’s lackluster performances have since dropped him to 11th place in the NASCAR Cup Series standings. McDowell started the day 16th in the field and was unable to climb the leaderboard, eventually finishing a disappointing 23rd.
Bowman fared much better, despite a close call. Bowman’s outing in Avondale appeared as if it might be cut short when he spun out in turn No. 1 on lap 47, bringing out the caution flag.
A stack-up results in disaster for @Alex_Bowman!
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) March 14, 2021
Bowman’s instincts prevented any serious damage and he continued to race. Shaking off the near miss, Bowman clawed his way through the field and eventually moved up to finish 13th.