The unpredictability of NASCAR’s 2021 race winners was finally met with familiarity on Sunday when Martin Truex Jr. won the Instacart 500 at Phoenix. Truex led the final 25 laps of the race, separating himself from second place finisher Joey Logano by 1.7 seconds at the checkered flag.
The victory marks Truex’s 28th career Cup win, and his first victory at Phoenix Raceway. He had the pole position for the spring race in 2018, but finished in fifth.
Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin finished third.
Truex made contact with the wall in the opening 20 laps and his No. 19 Toyota suffered early damage, but the team made adjustments and Truex was leading laps by early in the final stage.
“At the beginning of the race I thought we were going to run 15th or so,” Truex said on FOX. “I just can’t really believe it. I’m kind of speechless.”
He beat out Logano for the lead off the final restart, but Logano said Truex probably would have caught up with him eventually.
“He was fast,” Logano said. “It started to show at the end of the second stage…We’re just not fast enough right now.”
While it wasn’t Phoenix titan Kevin Harvick whose name dominated the leaderboard Sunday, familiar frontrunners still took up top spots throughout the 312-lap race. Former Cup champions made up the top five finishing spots, including Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott, for the first time this season.
Truex became the fifth different winner in the first five races of the season. He joins Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Kyle Larson. Logano said after the race that he believed the return of regular leaders was because the 750 horsepower rules package used for the track is harder to drive.
“I think experience probably comes out more,” Logano said. “There are different techniques that I think the experienced guys have learned over the years racing cars that don’t have much downforce, don’t have horsepower.”
For the past two weekends at Homestead and Las Vegas, NASCAR elected to use the 550 horsepower, high downforce NA18D rules package, but Phoenix marked a change. Denny Hamlin said that the same package, including changes to the spoiler height, was last used in 2017, which gave more experienced teams and drivers an advantage.
“We’ve all been through tire changes, car changes, aerodynamic changes, track changes that we’re ahead of the game I guess you could say,” Hamlin said. “Especially since we have no practice, it lends itself more to experience.”
Martin Truex Jr. is one of those experienced veterans, but the 2017 Cup champion earned just one victory in the series last season. He earned 14 top-five finishes last year and was a consistent field leader, but his best finish this year prior to Sunday — when he snapped a 29-race winless streak — was third at Homestead.
Truex, who was jubilant after the race, couldn’t pin down the exact change that allowed for his win at Phoenix after 31 starts, but said the No. 19 team focused closely on the specific package and track.
“I’ve probably had cars that felt better than what I had today,” Truex said. “But with the track being the way it is, this tire wearing out and the track getting as slick as it is, we were good enough to win. And that’s really what it’s all about.”
“It’s definitely a moving target in this sport,” he continued. “Everywhere we go, every week it’s different.”