By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service — Cover image by Getty Images / Sean Gardner / NASCAR Media
AVONDALE, AZ.: Martin Truex Jr. overcame an early-race brush with the wall and took the lead on the final restart with 25 laps remaining to earn his first victory of 2021 and first in 31 career starts at Phoenix Raceway.
Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota ultimately held off Joey Logano’s No. 22 Penske Racing Ford by a convincing 1.698-seconds for the win in the Instacart 500. The 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Truex took the race lead from the outside on a bold restart move — pulling away in the closing laps of a spirited race that featured 22 lead changes.
Truex, 40, of New Jersey, is now the fifth different winner in as many NASCAR Cup Series races this season joining Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron, and Kyle Larson who have also earned spots in the Playoffs.
“Just an awesome job by everybody, [crew chief] James [Small], all the pit crew guys fixing it, just really solid,” said Truex, who now has 28 career wins. “At the beginning of the race, I thought we were going to run 15th or so. Man, I just really can’t believe it. I’m kind of speechless.
“This feels pretty amazing. Phoenix has been a tough one for us.
“I wish it was November and I was in the Final Four,” he added with a smile, referring to the season championship finale at Phoenix Raceway later in the year. “Just so thankful and proud of everyone at JGR, everyone who makes this possible.”
Statistically, Logano’s Ford was the dominant car on the afternoon, leading a race-best 143 of the 312 laps and winning Stage 2 – his first stage win of the year. His Penske Racing teammate Ryan Blaney won Stage 1 (also his first stage victory of 2021) and all three Penske Racing cars finished in the Top-10. In all, the Penske trio of Logano, Blaney, and Keselowski combined to lead 197 laps – out front 63 percent of the day.
Logano started alongside Truex on the front row for the final restart and mounted a challenge for the lead, but he couldn’t hold off Truex even with a more favorable inside starting position.
“I was surprised he was able to hang with me on that [final] start,” a disappointed Logano conceded of Truex’s winning move. “He had a good start too, but I had a good one on the bottom and I thought might have short-cut it on the dogleg and I thought, boy I might have him cleared. Then we went into that corner still door-to-door and when you’re door-to-door the outside car has control.
“I’m pretty sure even if I beat him even on that start he was still going to hound me and probably get by me. They had the best car. We had a good car for sure, but once they tuned it in toward the second stage, it was the best car on the race track.”
Truex’s JGR teammate Denny Hamlin was third, followed by Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski and last November’s Phoenix winner Chase Elliott in fifth.
Kevin Harvick, a nine-time Phoenix winner, was sixth, earning his fourth Top-10 finish in the season’s opening five races. Last week’s Las Vegas winner Kyle Larson was seventh, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron was eighth followed by JGR driver Christopher Bell and Blaney to round out the Top-10.
Even without the victory, it was an impressive showing for the three Hendrick Motorsports cars that rallied to a Top-10. Elliott, Larson, and Byron all had to start from the rear of the field on Sunday with inspection issues. And the fourth Hendrick car, driven by Alex Bowman, was equally resilient with a 13th place finish despite hitting the wall and bringing out an early race caution flag.
Larson, in particular, put on a lesson in resiliency. He rallied to race among the Top-10 – even lead a lap — a third of the way into the race — but was sent back to the rear of the lead lap cars twice after that because of pit road speeding violations.
Hamlin, Keselowski, and Logano — all still looking for their first 2021 wins — are 1-2-3 in the championship standings with Hamlin holding a 39-point edge over Keselowski as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for next weekend’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).