Three Takeaways: Truex's big win and Larson's mistakes highlight Instacart 500
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Martin Truex Jr. didn’t think he had a car to win early Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500.
He tagged the Phoenix Raceway wall and needed a lengthy pit stop for repairs at the first stage break, dropping to 32nd in the 40-car field.
But those repairs worked.
Crew chief James Small told Truex his ride was fixed, and it apparently was, as he was one of the best cars the rest of the day and the best car at the end, capturing his first victory of the season.
The victory marked the first for Truex at the 1-mile track, which will play host to the championship race in November.
"To hit the fence, to go to the back, to fix it, to make some huge adjustments and for us to be able to run as good as we did at the end there, I’m speechless," said Truex, whose best in 30 previous starts at Phoenix was second. "This has been a tough track for us."
Here are my three takeaways from the race at Phoenix, which brought NASCAR's fifth winner in five races in 2021.
1. Big victory for Truex
This was not only Truex's first victory of the season but also his first victory in 30 starts since his win at Martinsville in June (and just his second in his past 44 starts).
He had come close several times – he had five runner-up finishes and five third-place finishes since that win – but Truex didn’t have the dominance that he showed with previous crew chief Cole Pearn, who retired from being a crew chief after the 2019 season.
"I wouldn’t say we needed it – I’d say we were really hungry for it," Truex said. "We worked really hard, and we’ve got a great team, and it always was little things that were biting us."
Truex passed Joey Logano on a restart with 25 laps remaining, as Logano tried to cut the apron and Truex had more momentum on the outside. Logano said he felt good restarting on the inside to be able to hold Truex off — but only initially.
"I’m pretty sure even if I beat him on that start, he was still going to hound me and probably get by me," Logano said. "They had the best car. They tuned it in.
"We had a good car, for sure, but once they tuned it in toward the end of the second stage, that was the best car on the race track. He just had to get up front, and he did."
2. Speeding costs Larson
Kyle Larson had to start at the rear of the field after his car failed pre-race tech twice. He rallied through the field to eighth but then had to go to the rear for speeding on pit road.
He rallied from 33rd to second, but then he had to go to the rear again for the same violation. He went from 26th to second before struggling in his final run and finishing seventh.
How painful was that for Larson? One of his speeding penalties came when he was clocked at 50.01 mph — 0.02 mph over what would have been legal. The speed limit was 45 mph, but drivers don’t get penalized unless they are 5 mph over.
"I had a really fast car again," said Larson, who was coming off the win last week at Las Vegas. "That’s very promising and just have to clean up mistakes on my end and have a smoother race."
3. Traction compound has impact
NASCAR sprayed traction compound at Phoenix in the middle and upper grooves in the turns in hopes of encouraging drivers to use the two upper lanes with the additional grip.
Denny Hamlin, who finished third, said he was 50-50 on whether it was useful at Phoenix. Logano thought it helped. Truex said there wasn’t as much stickiness as last year, and it seems to change each race.
"If you have no traction compound, everybody races around the bottom," Truex said. "If you have traction compound, everybody tries to use it the best to their advantage.
"Either way you look at it, you have a preferred groove. It just so happens now with the PJ1, it is up the race track."
The key for the traction compound to get worked in is to have drivers run in it, and the area against the wall had too much dust and marbles (bits of tire rubber) for drivers to run consistently up there.
"There wasn’t enough cars running just above the cushion [up next to the wall] to kind of wear that part in and get the dust off of it, so everyone was just kind of in that lane, and I think it lost a little bit of traction, a little bit of grip, but not a ton," said Ryan Blaney, who finished 10th.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass.