After starting 29 races without a win, Martin Truex, Jr. got back to victory lane on Sunday by winning the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway after passing Joey Logano for the lead on the final restart with 25 laps to go.
Truex last won at Martinsville last June, his only win since NASCAR returned from the seven-week COVID break last spring.
“We really were hungry for [the win],” Truex said. “We worked really hard. We’ve got a great team. It seemed like for whatever reason, it was always little things that were biting us. We were always so close, always second or third. I don’t know how many times we’ve been second, third, fourth, top five since we won last year at Martinsville. It’s been a bunch.”
The win also marked Truex’s first at Phoenix Raceway, where he previously had just four top-five finishes in his 30 starts prior to Sunday’s race.
“There’s been times throughout the years where I felt like we were really close,” Truex said. “I remember back in ’07, I led a bunch of laps here, felt like the car to beat. Towards the end of the race I think everybody pitted and we stayed out as the leader. We were the only one who stayed out and finished fifth or sixth on old tires.”
The race’s dominant car was Joey Logano’s no. 22. Logano finished second in stage 1, won stage 2, led a race-high 143 laps but fell short of winning at Phoenix yet again. This race was the second consecutive Phoenix race that Logano was passed for the win.
“I chose the bottom because I’ve chose the bottom every time I’ve been the leader, and it’s worked every single time,” Logano said. “I was kind of actually surprised that Truex was still out there. Felt like I created enough distance down there on the bottom shortcut in the dogleg that typically I can have someone at my quarter to where I can control them.”
In the first five NASCAR Cup Series races of 2021, there have been five different winners who have essentially locked themselves into the playoffs, leaving 11 slots still open. Denny Hamlin continues to lead the points standings with 236 points, 39 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, who sits second in points.
Following the conclusion of Sunday’s race at Phoenix, the 16 drivers who qualify for the playoffs are Denny Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Logano, Christopher Bell, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Michael McDowell, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. and Cole Custer rounded out the top-20 in points, but were still outside of the playoff positions.
The race had 22 lead changes between nine drivers and was run under caution seven times for a total of 45 laps.
The NASCAR Cup Series will race next at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Georgia on Sunday, March 21 at 3 p.m. ET for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
Stage 1 – 75 laps
Prior to the race even starting, one organization already found themselves in a hole. The Hendrick Chevrolets of Kyle Larson and William Byron failed pre-race inspection twice and had to start at the rear of the field. Their teammate, Chase Elliott, joined them at the rear for the start after his team made an unapproved adjustment to their no. 9 car. Larson would have started second, Elliott would have started sixth and Byron would have started 10th if they didn’t have to move to the rear.
Brad Keselowski started first alongside Christopher Bell to start the race, but Denny Hamlin took the lead using the grip compound on the outside lane on lap 3. For most of the first green flag run, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske held the top five positions.
The competition caution came out on lap 30 with Hamlin out from. Larson had worked his way to 14th, Byron made it up to 20th and Elliott raced his way up to 21st at the time of the caution.
Drivers pitted during the competition caution period. Keselowski reclaimed the lead coming off of pit road and had Bell right behind him. Larson, who came out of the pits in ninth, was caught speeding on pit road and had to restart at the tail end of the field.
Keselowski led to the restart and cleared the field for the lead, but his teammate, Ryan Blaney, wasn’t far behind. Blaney took the lead in turn 3 after following Keselowski for a handful of laps just before another caution came out when Alex Bowman spun in turn 3 after making contact with Ross Chastain and Austin Dillon on lap 45. Many of the top drivers stayed out during this caution, but some drivers like Byron, Elliott, Larson, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto and other drivers at the back of the top-20 elected to pit to see if fresh tires could help them gain track position.
Blaney led the restart with 24 laps left in the stage. The drivers with fresh tires immediately began to pounce and make moves to the front. Elliott led the drivers on new tires up to fifth with Kyle Busch in sixth, Bryon in eighth and Larson in ninth.
At the front, Blaney was being challenged for the lead by Joey Logano with just three to go. Logano made a move to Blaney’s inside, but with the grip and momentum of the high side, Logano couldn’t pass his teammate in time to win the stage.
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Blaney, Logano, Keselowski, Hamlin, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Byron, Larson and DiBenedetto.
Stage 2 – 115 laps
The stage-end caution meant more pit stops. Logano took the lead off pit road, pushing Blaney back to second. Hamlin, Elliott and Keselowski came off pit road to round out the top five.
The race restarted on lap 84 with Logano’s no. 22 out front. Elliott passed Hamlin to move into third behind the Penske pair of Logano and Blaney, but the caution came out on lap 88 after a quick green flag run to start the stage. The caution came out for rookie Anthony Alfredo, who crashed in turn 2 after making contact with Cody Ware.
The race restarted on lap 24 of the stage with Logano leading Blaney yet again. Elliott continued to run in third, splitting up the Penske trio. Larson was beginning to move in on the leaders as the stage began to run longer. Larson picked off Hamlin, Keselowski, Elliott and then Blaney, moving into second with 63 laps to go in stage 2 and closing on the leader, who was three seconds ahead.
With 50 laps left in the stage, drivers began to make green-flag pit stops. Many of the top 10 drivers were all within a lap or two of each other. Larson was nabbed for speeding on pit road again and served a pass-through penalty and Kyle Busch also needed to serve a penalty after his team had an uncontrolled tire on his pit stop. Corey LaJoie inherited the lead and stayed out in hopes of a caution trapping some of the leaders a lap down, but the caution never came. Logano cycled back around to the lead while Martin Truex, Jr. took third away from Blaney, which became second after passing LaJoie. They couldn’t catch Logano, who cruised to an easy stage 2 win.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Logano, Truex, Hamlin, Keselowski, Blaney, Harvick, Byron, Aric Almirola, Elliott and Bell.
Race to the finish – 122 laps
Under the caution for the second stage’s end. Logano held the lead after pit stops with Hamlin and Truex behind him. Elliott, Aric Almirola and Chastain all got busted for speeding on pit road under this caution.
Logano led the field to the green flag to start the final stage and began to gap the field immediately, but as the run continued, Truex’s car came to life. He took the lead from Logano with 88 laps to go. Logano continued to slide back as he began reporting a vibration. Logano lost position to Hamlin, Keselowski and then Larson, sliding back to fifth.
With 65 laps to go, Byron came down pit road, opening the window for green-flag pit stops to make it to the end of the race. Larson, who was 6.5-seconds back in fourth before pit stops, jumped up to second place, just two seconds back of Truex after the cycle of pit stops were complete.
Just after pit stops finished, Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick both had tire issues after getting into the outside wall. Reddick’s incident forced NASCAR to throw the caution with 50 laps to go.
The lead drivers pitted under the caution and Logano got off pit road first with Truex, Keselowski and Larson behind him. Logano wasn’t the race leader, however, because Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. did not pit, so he inherited the race lead.
Wallace led the field to the green flag with 44 laps to go with seven laps on his tires. He spun his rear tires and Keselowski snuck to the lead with Logano behind him. Logano made a crossover move on Keselowski to take the lead and Logano began to run away, but the caution came out shortly after when Kyle Busch spun off the bumper of Ross Chastain with 31 to go.
Drivers once again decided to pit under the caution. Logano came out of the pits first with Truex in second, Hamlin in third and Keselowski in fourth.
The green flag came back out with 25 laps to go. Truex used the outside to take the lead and sailed away without any challenges to his first Phoenix win and his first win of 2021.
Featured photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images