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    Martin Truex Jr. is the driver to beat

    Points leader Martin Truex Jr., prepares for a practice run for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
    A lot of hard work and some heartache have put Martin Truex Jr. at the top of the field.

    Monster Energy Cup Standings

    KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Martin Truex Jr. already looks like the coolest cat at the club, with his shades and scruff and disarming smile, yet he has even more reason to be relaxed and confident at Kansas Speedway this weekend.

    Start with the fact that he’s already clinched a spot in the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs with his win at Charlotte. Brad Keselowski is also assured of advancing through the round of 12 after Sunday’s race, but former champs such as Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are on the bubble.

    Then consider the fact that Truex always runs well at intermediate tracks, finishing in the top 10 in his last five starts with a trio of victories. He’s especially good at Kansas, where he routinely runs up front and exorcised some bad luck with a victory in May.


    Finally, there’s the fact that Truex was fastest the moment he unloaded Friday, winning the pole for the Hollywood Casino 400 and earning not only a prime pit stall for Sunday but also the first pick next week at Martinsville.

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    That all led to this admission from Johnson, who is chasing his record-setting eighth Cup title: ‘‘The 78 has sort of controlled the year. We’re all jealous of the situation they’re in.’’

    It’s not as if Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team have lucked into this situation.

    The only NASCAR team headquartered west of the Mississippi River went through years of fits and starts, with team owner Barney Visser often pouring gobs of his own money into the project. And things didn’t look as if they were getting much better when Truex came aboard for the 2014 season.

    He managed five top-10 finishes, led a single lap all year and finished 24th in the standings.


    But the team kept grinding and the following year dominated the spring race at Kansas before a poor pit stop shuffled him back. The result nevertheless sent confidence soaring, and the team broke its 69-race winless drought at Pocono that summer — and quite simply never looked back.

    With a new manufacturer in Toyota and a new alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, the team won four times last season and cruised into the playoffs. That number has soared to six this season, and Truex needs to lead just 23 laps at Kansas on Sunday to break the 2,000 mark for the year.

    ‘‘It’s just racing. You never know,’’ Truex said. ‘‘We’ll go race hard and I know we’ll have what it takes to win, and hopefully we can get it done this time around.’’

    All his success has quite literally paid off, too. The team announced last week it filled out its sponsorship for next season, which is never a guarantee even for top drivers these days. Bass Pro Shops and 5-hour Energy are sharing primary sponsorship, with Auto Owners Insurance helping out.

    ‘‘For me, it’s terrific,’’ Visser said during the announcement. ‘‘You don’t see me dancing in the aisles, but inside I am. Martin has just delivered. It’s just been remarkable what he and the guys have been able to accomplish. So, we have to attribute it to that.’’


    Yet there are more, bigger goals still on the horizon, and that is why Truex has been pushing so hard during the playoffs. Every point matters in the race to Homestead and the series finale.

    ‘‘You can’t just turn it off, turn it on,’’ Truex said. ‘‘We said coming into the playoffs that we have to try to just be who we are, play to our strengths, do things the way we know how to do them. I feel like if you try to lay back or if you try to step it up at certain points of time, you open yourself up for mistakes. You have to just push right on that edge that you’re used to, comfortable with.

    ‘‘Kansas has been an awesome track for us over the years in general,’’ he said, ‘‘but really the last couple years we’ve been strong here. I feel like we understand this track really well.’’

    Seems like most of the playoff contenders have figured it out.

    Truex will start alongside Kevin Harvick on Sunday, while Kenseth and Denny Hamlin make up the second round. Busch and Jamie McMurray will make up Row 4, with Keselowski and Johnson are in the next couple rows. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will start side by side in Row 7.

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. struggled in qualifying and will start 24th, while Ryan Blaney’s car failed post-qualifying inspection, forcing him to start at the back of the field.

    Johnson is in the eighth and final spot to advance to the next round, but his cushion over Busch is just seven points. Kenseth is another point back, making for a crowded playoff bubble.

    ‘‘You got to execute,’’ Kenseth said. ‘‘You got to figure out how to be fast on restarts and fast at the end of the run as well. And then of course we’ve got to do good on pit road, so hopefully I keep that track position or improve a few spots actually and stay up there the whole race.’’

    That’s the only way for Kenseth and several other contenders to advance to the next round.

    It’s also something Truex doesn’t have to worry about.

    .   .   .

    Christopher Bell raced to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory Saturday, beating dominant Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones after they made contact with four laps left at Kansas Speedway.

    Bell led for just four laps, hanging in second place behind Jones for much of the race before sliding in front of him shortly before the collision. Jones was coming from the top of the track when he hit the back of Bell’s car.

    Jones led 186 laps of 200 laps, and won both of the first two stages. He failed to finish the race.

    Bell, a regular in the Truck Series, and Jones are not eligible for the series playoffs.

    Pole winner Tyler Reddick finished second, and Ryan Blaney was third.