As the laps clicked away in the Cook Out Southern 500 on Sunday night at the Darlington Raceway, it appeared as if the first race in the NASCAR Playoffs was about to boil down to a two car fight between leader Chase Elliott and a fast-closing Martin Truex, Jr. for the win. However, contact between those two machines when Truex moved inside of Elliott with 14 circuits remaining in the NASCAR Cup Series race sent the two lead machines bouncing off the turn one wall and eventually dropped both out of contention for the win.
Kevin Harvick capitalized on the misfortune of the drivers who had been ahead of him then held off Austin Dillon to claim the win and assure himself of advancement into the second round of the playoffs. Elliott and Truex had to settle for finishes of 20th and 22nd respectively.
After the race, the two primary combatants offered differing views of what happened to cause their ultimate downfall.
“There just wasn’t enough room in there for both of us, you know,” Truex explained to NBC Sports. “I thought I had enough of a run to clear him, I think it was close, obviously. I thought I had enough momentum and distance on him that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed, and once I figured out he was still there, there was nothing I could do. It’s really unfortunate for our Bass Pro Toyota.”
Elliott countered by asserting that Truex acted too hastily in moving up the track into his path.
“He had a run on me there off of four and he just kind of cleared himself into one,” Elliott said. “It was close but he wasn’t all the way clear, obviously. I hate it. We had a fast NAPA Camaro. It was fast enough to contend. We needed a little pace there to extend our lead instead of playing defense.”
Truex offered a measured apology for the contact.
“I’m really bummed out for the guys, we had a smokin’ fast race car, obviously,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver offered. “There’s a lot to be proud of. I hate it for the 9 team. It was nothing intentional, it was two guys going for the win and there was not enough room for the both of us there. If it was my fault, I apologize. But I really just felt like I had the position to get in there to one. That’s how it goes and we’ll see what goes on from here.”
Elliott tried adjusting his line through turns three and four just prior to the accident and that may have given Truex a run that led to the mishap.
“I thought we were in a good spot,” the Hendrick Motorsports pilot pointed out. “I ran the bottom through three and four just to see if there was anything left down there and that’s what gave him a run then he just slid up into my left front, I felt like, and yeah, on we went.”
Truex asserted that, until he sees differently on video, he believes he was not fully at fault.
“I felt like I had enough there and it was only a few inches,” the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion recalled. “A few inches and either you wreck or you give it to the guy. I feel like I was on the right side of things, but I’ll have to go back and look at it and see if there was something I could have done different. Obviously we had the car to beat and I was trying to work over the 9. Track position is always really important here. I felt like we were going to get the lead there and that would have been big, but sometimes things just don’t work out. We gave it our all and came up short.”
Elliott believed he needed to try a new line in case Truex had been trying to lure him into a mistake.
“I felt like I had a little bit of a gap to try something to be sure he wasn’t baiting me or something to go to the top then he was going to go to the bottom,” Elliot explained. “But hey, it’s par for the course here, I suppose.”
Truex currently sits sixth in the NASCAR Playoffs standings while Elliott holds down the seventh position. The NASCAR Cup Series now moves to the Richmond Raceway on Saturday night for the Federated Auto Parts 400.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook