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NASCAR: Pass-Fail-Advance - A closer look at Truex Jr.'s Chase opener

The opening round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup had it all. A rookie, Chase Elliott, led 75 laps and almost won his first career Sprint Cup victory before losing it in overtime. A six-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, goofed in a speedy way...

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Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 18, 2016 in Joliet, Illinois. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The opening round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup had it all.

A rookie, Chase Elliott, led 75 laps and almost won his first career Sprint Cup victory before losing it in overtime.

A six-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, goofed in a speedy way and then his car got caught in post-race laser inspection.

Kevin Harvick was back to shoving others, this time not waiting until he got to the motor home parking lot. Instead, he slammed the eventual winning Toyota of Martin Truex, Jr. with his Chevy on the straight at the Chicagoland Speedway.

There was a lottery when it came to who got the faulty Goodyear tires, some of which came apart. Truex, Jr. was struck -- this time by misfortune -- and had to come from a lap down to win it in overtime. Another victim was Kyle Larson, who had a potential Top 5 finish aborted by an unscheduled pit stop late in the race

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When it was over, word arrived that Regan Smith, who usually drives for Tommy Baldwin, Jr., and his wife were celebrating the birth of a daughter. And then the shadow of a potential "encumbered finish" fell when winner Truex, Jr., in addition to Johnson, was found to have minor infractions while running the gauntlet of the Laser Inspection Station after the race.

The left rear tire of Truex, Jr. was outside the specification for the toe measurement by 0.01 degrees. That threatened a remarkable comeback and perhaps this was Harvick's intent when he slammed the Furniture Row Racing's left rear.

"I was freakin' door-slammed," was Truex, Jr.'s comment on the radio. After the race he was equally explicit. "Going down the straightaway, it's pretty hard to run into somebody."

If there's any doubt about the passion when it comes to winning the Sprint Cup, consider 2014 champion Harvick, who had three major setbacks before the incident with Truex, Jr.

First Harvick was forced to start from the back of the field when NASCAR officials determined changes had been made to the bodywork of his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy somewhere between pre-race inspection and the car being pushed to the starting grid.

After dashing through the field to eighth place, Harvick was next frustrated because of just plain bad luck on the day's first caution. It fell just after Harvick had pitted early due to tires worn by his extraordinary push to the front from the back. He went from a potential second place on the re-start to a lap down -- because race leader Truex, Jr. hit the start-finish line on the track just before Harvick could get his Chevy across it in the pits.

On the next green flag stint Truex, Jr. had his tire difficulty and pitted. With fresh tires, he passed Harvick to get into the Lucky Dog position -- denying it to Harvick, who spent much of the race a lap down before finishing 20th. Along the way, he elected to bash the left rear of Truex, Jr. as he came through the field.

Perhaps Harvick was hoping to intentionally affect the outcome of the post-race inspection as well as vent his frustration. The impact was just enough to damage the left rear without crashing Truex, Jr. And perhaps it almost succeeded when the left rear of the Furniture Row Racing failed post-race laser inspection on that side.

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In any event, Harvick declined all questions from the electronic and print media after the race. Before the race, however, he tweeted a video of an escaped bull raging through fans in a bullfight stadium, saying it demonstrated how his attitude was going to be during the Chase.

NASCAR decided the infraction of 0.01 degrees on the Furniture Row Chevy was not enough to warrant anything other than a P2 penalty, which will be announced later this week. That lifted the specter of an "encumbered finish," which would have denied Truex, Jr. advancement to the Round of 12, the second round of the Chase that begins in three weeks.

The pre-race and post-race laser inspection is new this year to the Sprint Cup. The regulations on tire toe are designed to prevent teams from achieving excessive "skew" in the chassis by how the rear tires are aligned, which can improve cornering speed.

Prior to the opening round of the Chase, NASCAR officials clarified how it would use the LIS results in the course of the championship pursuit. Only a scenario where both rear tires are wrong on the toe measurements would automatically result in a victory being "encumbered" and not qualifying a driver to advance in the Chase.

Johnson was a two-time loser despite leading 118 laps -- after getting the race lead in the pits under that same first caution that left hapless Harvick a lap down. Johnson was dumbstruck by his own error of speeding while exiting the pit road and in contention for the victory with 30 laps to go. One can only imagine what Johnson's thinking was when he heard his car failed the laser inspection. Because he didn't win and advance as a result, his post-race inspection problem will cost him considerably more than the fine and points setback of Truex, Jr.

If the standard P2 penalty for a minor infraction applies to Johnson when NASCAR makes its weekly announcement on penalties, he will lose 10 points and drop into a tie with Austin Dillon and Harvick for 12th in the point standings among Chase contenders. Since only 12 drivers advance to the next round, it's a pretty serious penalty for Johnson.

In the final analysis, all of the major teams contesting the championship proved to be fast at Chicagoland. The Chevy entries of Hendrick (Johnson and Elliott), Stewart-Haas (Harvick) and Chip Ganassi Racing (Larson) were contenders despite either bad racing, bad luck or errors. The Fords of Team Penske finished second (Joey Logano) and fifth (Brad Keselowski).

The previously dominant Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing were only in the lead for 21 laps in the form of Kyle Busch's No. 18, which started on the pole due to points after qualifying was rained out. But if Truex, Jr., who led 32 laps, could come from a lap down to win in his JGR-affiliated Toyota in overtime, then it's likely the JGR cars will come loaded for bear at the second race of the Round of 16 in New Hampshire this weekend.

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By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

 

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