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Martin Truex Jr. clinches Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 2017 Regular Season Championship

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Martin Truex Jr. aptly described his Labor Day Sunday as “bittersweet,” with just cause to celebrate and reasons aplenty for dejection.

There was some satisfaction to be had with the sting at Darlington Raceway, a regular-season title lauding Truex’s yearlong accomplishments. But his shot at defending his Bojangles’ Southern 500 crown in one of the season’s most demanding events ended with a blown right-front tire near the end and a grinding scrape for his Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota against the Turn 3 wall.

“I was kind of out there caught up driving my guts out at the end trying to hang on,” Truex said after limping to an eighth-place finish behind eventual race winner Denny Hamlin. “It’s unfortunate we blew the tire, but really proud of everybody on this team for an amazing season so far, and to lock up the regular-season points is a huge accomplishment for us, for our team. I feel like we’ve come a long way in just a few years together and continue to climb.

“Proud of everybody. Wish we could have won, but that’s the breaks. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t, and tonight we come up a little short. But definitely a lot to be proud of.”

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The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Regular Season Championship, instituted this year, hands Truex a 15-playoff-point bonus to his already commanding tally. Combined with his two stage wins Sunday night (his series-leading 16th and 17th this season), he heads to next weekend’s regular-season finale at Richmond with 52 playoff points — a heavy advantage as he enters the closing 10-race stretch.

“Oh, we’ve had a great year,” said Cole Pearn, third-year crew chief for the No. 78 team. “We’ve been good every week and managed to not have too many mishaps and added consistency. I think that’s a real credit to the team, and hopefully we can keep that rolling into the playoffs.”

Truex’s four-win season was in prime position of becoming five at Darlington. He led five times for 76 of the 367 laps, and — as has become customary during Truex’s regular-season tear — his time up front was strategically planned at the end of the race’s first two stages.

Truex seemed to have optimal timing again near the finish, springing to the lead shortly after the final exchange of pit stops in the closing 102-lap run of green-flag racing. Hamlin gradually chopped into the lead, setting up a potential classic contest for the lead. But Truex’s tire gave way, allowing Hamlin to scoot by and lead the final three circuits.

“Tough one to take that way, but it is what it is,” Pearn said. “Hell of a car, proud of the effort. This one stings a bit.”

Truex’s consolation prize at least came at an appropriate venue. Post-race, he referenced clinching his first NASCAR championship in what’s now the XFINITY Series here, back with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2004. He followed that season with another XFINITY title, launching his career toward a star turn in NASCAR’s premier series.

“To do it here again tonight was really cool,” Truex said. “It was just kind of a neat connection. Darlington has been good to me. I love coming here, and for that reason I guess it’s a little bit extra special to do it here tonight.”