Triumphant Truex turns out the lights on first night Cup race

Here is a scene from last fall’s post-season race staged at Martinsville Speedway that finished under the lights and was viewed by fans. Wednesday’s event was contested at night, but no fans were permitted to watch it from the grandstands because of the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR has announced that a limited number of fans will be admitted to series races in Homestead-Miami (Florida) Speedway Sunday and Talladega, Alabama on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21.

MARTINSVILLE — Martin Truex Jr. has led 596 of the last 1,000 laps run at Martinsville Speedway.

Leading 132 laps Wednesday night, Truex, the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, cruised to his second straight victory at ‘’The Paperclip,’’ taking home his second career grandfather clock trophy.

Truex grabbed the lead for the second time on lap 370, and cruised the rest of the way, increasing hisadvantage to more than four seconds to easily outpace second place finisher Ryan Blaney, who started from the pole.

Truex started fifth, was running fourth at the end of Stage 1, and 15th at the end of Stage 2 before storming back in the second half of the race.

“I think the last few trips here we’ve had a lot of confidence,” Truex said in a post-race press conference. “Really, the last couple years, we’ve just continued to refine our setup and what we were doing and I’ve kind of found a rhythm for what I’m doing here and the guys have found a setup for what I need to drive fast.”

Truex had to hold off a trio of Team Penske drivers who crossed the finish line in second, third and fourth.

Blaney fell back to 19th at the end of Stage 1 after early struggles with his car. He drove back into the top five, but after his team was assessed a penalty on pit road for a crew member jumping the wall too soon, Blaney lost a number of positions.

But, Blaney battled back to the front of the field and led twice for a total of 34 laps during the race’s second half.

Teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, both past Martinsville winners and past series champions, and Hendrick Motorsports chauffeur Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.

Truex won the fall race at Martinsville Speedway last October after leading 464 laps that day. That victory enabled Truex to earn a berth in the series’ Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami (Florida) Speedway.

Wednesday’s 500-lap event was the first Cup Series night race at Martinsville, the first mid-week race at the track, and the first race contested without fans in the stands due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NASCAR announced earlier Wednesday that 1,000 fans will be permitted to view Sunday’s series race at Homestead-Miami and that 5,000 patrons will be allowed to watch the event in Talladega, Alabama. on ..Father’s Day, Sunday, June 21.

“Its kind of weird to get out of the car with no fans, drive to a makeshift victory lane, take one picture and leave,” Truex said. “I miss having a few cold beverages with my team.”

It was the first race with new Goodyear tires. Keselowski and Truex both said the difference there was noticeable.

“I think the big thing that was noticed was not having any practice,” Keselowski said. “That made a really different experience to try to dial the cars in and this tire was quite a bit different from any tire we’ve had here before. Those two things were certainly more challenging than anything else we noticed.”

“I think the biggest difference was the tire they brought here, ‘‘ Truex said. The tire fall off was a lot more than what they brought in the fall. I thought (the track) changed more as it took rubber early on then settled in like it normally does... Temperatures were pretty hot and usually when we race here it’s pretty cool so that may have made a difference as well.”

The winis Truex’s first of the 2020 season, and just his second top five finish in 11 races. Also, it is the first win for James Small, Truex’s new crew chief.

“If you look at the season we’ve had we’ve been really strong. I think we’e been the strongest Toyota week in and week out,” Truex said. “I felt like we had a few chances at winning slip away here lately but I feel like everybody is doing a great job.

“I think this answers a great question for (Small) more than anything... I think he’s doing a great job and I’m really proud of him.”

The win locks Truex into the Cup Series playoffs. The penultimate post-season race is set for Martinsville on Sunday, Nov. 1.

“It definitely relaxes you a little bit,” Truex said. “To get our first win, get locked into the playoffs... that’s a step in the right direction

“Certainly it’s easier to go to the track once you know you’re locked in and you have that momentum.”

Truex’s win is the 27th of his career and counting his 2019 sweep at Richmond, he has won four straight races in Virginia.

Rounding out the top 10 were Alex Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Kurt Busch, a past series champion and a past track winner, and seven-time Cup titleholder and nine-time speedway winner Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson led 70 lap en route to a a Stage 2 winand Logano paced the field for a race-best 234 laps and was victorious in Stage 1.

TIRE TRACKS: Below is NASCAR’s statement calling for a ban on the Confederate flag at its tracks. The statement was issued hours before the green flag fell on the Cup Series race in Martinsville.

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Editor’s Note: Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin.

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