Joe Gibbs Racing's Martin Truex Jr. won his fifth race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the South Point 400 but this trip to victory lane became the most important as it was the opening race of the playoff portion of the schedule. The win automatically transfers him into the next round of the playoffs plus he added to his playoff bonus points' total with the five that he earned by taking the checkered flag.
Even though there was a field of 39 cars to take the green flag on Sunday, it didn't take long before the 16 playoff drivers showed why they had earned the right to race for the title.
Last season's champion Joey Logano led 105 laps to lead all drivers but put his Ford into the outside wall while trying to avoid Daniel Suarez which took away any chance he had of winning.
The race eventually became a duel between Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick as both drivers took turns with the lead as Harvick led 47 laps but when the final laps went off the board it was Truex Jr. who had his Toyota at the front of the field. He led 32 laps and by the end of the race after some great adjustments in the pits finished 4.173-seconds ahead of Harvick.
The remaining eight spots in the finishing order were all made up of playoff drivers as Brad Keselowski finished third with Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney rounding out the top-5. Alex Bowman and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Bryon finished sixth and seventh followed by Kyle Larson in eighth, Joey Logano in ninth and Ryan Newman in 10th.
The win by Truex Jr. puts him in first place in the standings with a three point lead over Harvick and a seven point lead over Logano in third. Kyle Busch who entered the playoffs in the top spot fell to the fourth spot after his 19th-place finish.
Las Vegas was the first playoff race but with only two races left at Richmond and Charlotte before the Round of 16 eliminates four drivers, it is not to early look at the drivers who have already found themselves on the bubble of either advancing or being eliminated. Aric Almirola sits in the 12th spot with a slim 6 point lead over Ryan Newman. Joining Newman below the cut-off line is Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones
Kurt Busch entered the playoffs with a win and had consistently run up front this season but it didn't take long for his playoff bid to take a hit as a blown tire sent his Chip Ganassi Chevrolet into the wall with enough damage that he had to go to the garage area. His early exit saddled him with a last-place finish and he now finds himself 14 points out of the final transfer spot.
Pole sitter Clint Bowyer had a tire that went down forcing him to go a lap down and a 25th place finish that now has him in fifteenth in the standings, 21 points below the cut-off line.
Erik Jones suffered mechanical issues in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that left him 13 laps off the pace at the end of the race. He now goes to Richmond last in the playoff standings, 26 points below the cutoff line.
While the results from one playoff race leading up the final race at Homestead Miami will never win the championship for a driver, one race can severely hinder a driver's championship dream. That could be the case for Bowyer and Jones who don't have the playoff bonus points to use as a cushion moving forward which may put both drivers already in a position to having to win to advance to the Round of 12.
Race wins will be tough to come by in the next two weeks as this weekend's stop at the short track of Richmond will be ratcheted up with a Saturday night green flag followed by the second race ever on Charlotte's Roval course which produced one of the most exciting races of the entire playoff last season.
Steve Mickey writes about NASCAR for HD Media.