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Defending NASCAR champ Truex knows way around Las Vegas

What starts in Vegas, sometimes ends in Vegas.

It doesn’t happen every year that the driver who wins the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway goes on to be toasted during NASCAR Champion’s Week here in December. But it happens more often than one might think.

There have been 20 Cup Series races at LVMS. Six times the guy who won here went on to win the championship.

Including Martin Truex Jr. in 2017.

“To get that win out of the way early, in Vegas, was a huge deal for us,” Truex said of joining Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson (three times) on the list of those who have used a Las Vegas victory as a springboard to the Cup Series championship. “Just to say, OK, the pressure’s off. We’re locked into the playoffs. We can just go race and have fun and try to continue to build our program.”

Winning in Las Vegas provides a double shot of octane. As Truex mentioned, Sunday’s winner is guaranteed a spot in the NASCAR playoffs, which begin here in September with the inaugural South Point 400. Almost as important: LVMS is a 1.5-mile oval. With so many races held on the “cookie-cutter” tracks, drivers who cannot get around them usually do not sip champagne on the Strip during Champion’s Week.

Case in point: Truex Jr. The 37-year-old veteran from New Jersey won eight races in 2017. Seven were on intermediate ovals such as Las Vegas.

“For the most part, we put in the same amount of effort anywhere we go,” said the driver of the No. 78 Toyota Camry for Denver-based Furniture Row Racing. “For whatever reason, the results at the mile-and-a-halves (were better). I’m not sure why that is. There’s a comfort level, and obviously the team has a good setup that suits my driving style.”

Truex dominated last year’s race in Las Vegas, becoming the first driver to sweep all three stages of a Cup Series event. But despite leading 150 laps he appeared headed for a runner-up finish until Brad Keselowski encountered mechanical gremlins with two laps to go.

A little racing luck on the 1.5-mile ovals never hurt anybody, either.

Truex mostly beat around the NASCAR bushes until putting together a breakout season in 2016 that saw him win four times and finish second in Las Vegas. He stands seventh in points, the same spot he occupied at this juncture last year.

It might have been a little higher had NASCAR not changed its pit stop rules. Teams are not allowed to develop their own air guns anymore, and the one NASCAR provided the No. 78 team Sunday at Atlanta repeatedly malfunctioned, dropping Truex to fifth place at the checkered flag.

He started at the back after his car failed to pass tech inspection but quickly charged through the field before the air gun began to misfire.

“We knew there would be some issues with that deal,” said Truex, who has gone from working on his father’s clam boats to becoming a popular NASCAR champion. “To come (to Atlanta) and really have a good day except for those gun problems – really proud of everybody.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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