Martin Truex Jr. cruised to a win Sunday in the Citizen Soldier 400 at Dover International Speedway in Delaware.
It was Truex's fourth checkered flag in 2016, continuing his career year. Entering the season, he had three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories over his first 12 years on the track.
The 36-year-old prevailed in dominant fashion, leading 187 of the race's 400 laps and finishing 7.527 seconds ahead of runner-up Kyle Busch:
|Citizen Soldier 400 Results: Top 10|
|Pos.||Driver||Time Behind (Seconds)||Laps Led|
|1||Martin Truex Jr.||-----||187|
|7||Jimmie Johnson||1 Lap||90|
|8||Austin Dillon||1 Lap||0|
|9||Denny Hamlin||1 Lap||0|
|10||Jeff Gordon||1 Lap||7|
Truex won't be able to savor his victory for long. The point totals for drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup will reset for the next round, so everybody still alive is on equal footing:
|Chase for the Sprint Cup Standings|
|1||Martin Truex Jr.||3,000||4|
The only drama was whether Truex would shoot himself in the foot and run into one of the many lapped cars on his way to the finish line.
NASCAR on NBC shared a look at the race's final laps:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
.@MartinTruex_Jr gets it done at the @MonsterMile! #TheChase https://t.co/tfymaoMki22016-10-2 21:28:59
NASCAR posted a clip of his post-race celebration:
Mr. Truex Jr in Victory Lane! #TheChase https://t.co/0PUidSJhrT2016-10-2 21:28:09
Ryan Truex was happy to see his brother in Victory Lane:
Ryan Truex @Ryan_Truex
This is awesome https://t.co/zbBs2gVXjP2016-10-2 21:38:36
NASCAR legend Mark Martin praised Truex for a job well done:
Mark Martin @markmartin
.@MartinTruex_Jr beat down 🏁2016-10-2 21:27:22
More important than Truex's win was that the Chase field shrunk from 16 to 12 drivers ahead of next week's Bank of America 500 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Entering Sunday's race, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher were in the danger zone as the last four drivers in the top 16.
McMurray learned his fate early in the race, when engine problems forced him to take his car to the garage after completing 192 laps.
NASCAR on NBC shared a replay of the No. 1 car blowing its engine:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
Jamie McMurray's engine blows and ends #TheChase chances for him. https://t.co/q1XkhWWT082016-10-2 19:59:25
McMurray's Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson joined him in the group of four drivers eliminated from the Chase.
Larson earned a pass-through penalty on Lap 42 after too many members of his pit crew climbed over the wall on a stop. After serving the penalty, Larson was three laps down, and he never recovered.
A wreck on Lap 182 was the final nail in his coffin. The No. 42 car blew a tire and slammed into the outside wall, which NASCAR shared on Twitter:
Ouch! A big hit sends @KyleLarsonRacin back down pit road. #TheChase https://t.co/05fFDEoVgc2016-10-2 19:43:11
Stewart won't be getting a storybook ending to his NASCAR career. He placed 13th on Sunday, five spots behind Austin Dillon, who climbed into 12th place in the Chase standings. Eleven points separated the two drivers following the conclusion of the Round of 16.
Looking ahead to the second round of the Chase, no driver is hotter than Truex, who won two of the three races in the first round.
Former driver and current NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty considers Truex to be the favorite to win the title:
Kyle Petty @kylepetty
The man you've gotta beat to win #theChase! Congrats @MartinTruex_Jr!! @monstermile @NASCARonNBC2016-10-2 21:44:49
The title race is far from over, though, and fortunes can change drastically over the next two months.
Joey Logano was in a similar position last year. He registered three straight wins in October and seemed to be en route to his first Sprint Cup title. Then, Matt Kenseth wrecked Logano at the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 on Nov. 1, 2015, and Logano's championship hopes evaporated.
Truex is riding a nice wave of momentum, but he can't afford to take his focus off the ultimate goal.
Even Truex is surprised by his recent success, according to USA Today's Jeff Gluck: "It's just amazing to drive these race cars. This is just unbelievable. Especially here; it's been considered a home track for me for a long time. I've got to pinch myself. The last month-and-a-half has been ridiculous. It's been a fairytale."
Despite failing to advance to the second round of the Chase, Stewart wasn't disappointed with the result.
"We were much better than we were yesterday [in practice]," he said, per ESPN.com's Bob Pockrass. "[I'm] really proud of our team. We kept making it better all day. That is good as we had."
Larson, meanwhile, lamented how much the pass-through penalty hurt.
"Without too many men over the wall, we probably would have been all right because I was only a lap down," he said. "Whatever. But, our [car] has been good every week. So, we'll go out and try to win some races."