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Martin Truex Jr. has won the opening race of NASCAR’s playoffs to earn an automatic berth into the second round.

 

Truex’s victory Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was his series-best fifth of the season and again cemented Joe Gibbs Racing as the team to beat in this 10-race playoff series. JGR has 14 wins this season.

 

Truex chased down Kevin Harvick, who was slowed by traffic, to cut into Harvick’s lead and eventually make the pass for the win on the outside with 20 laps remaining.

 

Las Vegas was a brutal opener for a handful of title contenders, including Kurt Busch, who crashed when his tire went flat and he finished last in the field. Erik Jones had an earlier mechanical issue and finished four spots higher in 36th.

 

The top 10 finishers were all playoff contenders as Truex was followed by Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson, reigning series champion Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.

 

Pole-sitter Clint Bowyer started the race by leading all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers to the green flag, but he never could clear the traffic and eventually dropped to a 25th-place finish.

 

Kurt Busch, Bowyer and Jones are now the bottom three drivers in the 16-driver field and in danger of being eliminated in two weeks.

 

It was 100 degrees when the race began, hours later than it did last season because NASCAR felt it was too hot for fans in attendance.

 

Up next is a Saturday night race at Richmond Raceway in Virginia. Kyle Busch is the defending race winner. The field will then be cut by four drivers after the Sept. 29 race at Charlotte.

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