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Bad luck no match for Martin Truex Jr. at Chicagoland

A flat tire and lap deficit weren’t enough to prevent Truex from winning the opening race of NASCAR’s playoffs.

If there was a microcosm of Martin Truex Jr.'s season, Sunday's playoff opener victory at Chicagoland Speedway encapsulated it.

Similar to so many races during the regular season, Truex's No. 78 Furniture Row Racing car was among the fastest in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400. If circumstances worked in his favor, Truex could conceivably score a statement win in the first Chase for the Sprint Cup event, thereby securing advancement to the second round.

But things have rarely gone smoothly for Truex and Furniture Row in 2016. He's suffered through parts failures (Kansas, New Hampshire), being swept into an accident he didn't instigate (Dover), being flagged for a rarely called penalty (Kentucky), a crewmember falling into and damaging the car during a pit stop (Michigan), and myriad other occurrences that made it seem as if Truex had walked underneath a ladder in the presence of a black cat.

On Sunday, it was a right-front tire that would seemingly prompt Truex's undoing. The tire came apart just after he had led 30 laps, and during a prolonged stretch of green-flag racing. During the subsequent unscheduled pit stop, Truex fell a lap behind and any chance of victory considerably reduced.

However, this wasn't like the other races where bad luck conspired to keep Truex out of victory lane.

"Don't give up, just keep digging and there was only one way to go with that tonight," Truex said, explaining his mindset when the tire unraveled. "On one hand, the bad luck was going to bite us. And on the other, we had a lot of time to battle back."

When he twice needed a favorable break in the form of a well-timed caution, he got it. The first yellow flag permitted Truex to get his lap back and begin a charge up the leaderboard. As for the second caution, that occurred with four laps remaining and erased leader Chase Elliott's advantage over Truex, who by then had climbed to second but admitted he had no chance of catching Elliott.

With his luck having turned for the better, Truex made a pit stop for four fresh tires and restarted fourth behind Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards, all of whom stayed out on older tires.

From there, Truex made it look easy, retaking the lead with little hesitation. He pulled away and won for the third time this season, which equals the number of wins he had in the previous 10 years combined.

"I feel like any racetrack, any weekend, anywhere in the country we can win," Truex said.

Sunday, though, carried more significance than any of Truex's previous five victories. He's now assured of transferring to Round 2 of the playoffs regardless of what may happen in the next two races. It also justifies the weighty expectations placed on FRR, which for the first time entered the playoffs carrying the status as a championship favorite.

If Truex is to deliver upon that promise, FRR will need to do a better job avoiding running afoul of NASCAR inspectors -- for the second consecutive week, the No. 78 car failed postrace inspection. Although deemed a minor violation with any resulting penalties having minimal consequence (likely announced Wednesday), Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of FRR will face greater scrutiny in the future.

FRR said in a statement Monday that the left-rear wheel alignment on Truex's car didn't meet NASCAR's specifications by "approximately ten-thousandths of an inch" when going through the Laser Inspection Station. The team contends that the damage was caused when Kevin Harvick body-slammed the No. 78 car mid-race, an incident Truex believes was deliberate.

Harvick declined to speak with reporters postrace.

"Typically, it's real easy not to run into somebody's left rear on the straightaway," Truex said. "As far as I could tell, he did it on purpose. All I can do is assume that and wait for him to tell me otherwise."

That Harvick, a title favorite himself, would purposefully swerve into a challenger isn't beyond reason. The 2014 Sprint Cup champion was in the midst of a frustrating afternoon, and has demonstrated previously he's not above impeding the chances of someone whom he perceives as a threat.

Such is life when you're a contender. Something Truex is becoming quite familiar with.