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Championship 4 clinch ‘bittersweet’ for Martin Truex Jr, Cole Pearn

RELATED: Texas race results | Stages recap | At-track photos

FORT WORTH, Texas — With 11 laps to go, the AAA Texas 500 was shaping up to be a dual celebration for Martin Truex Jr.

The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota was leading at Texas Motor Speedway and nearing an automatic berth in the Championship 4 before a surging Kevin Harvick grabbed the lead with 10 laps to go.

While Truex Jr. didn’t get the victory, he did join Round of 8 race winners Harvick and Kyle Busch as drivers locked into the Championship 4 field for Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The New Jersey native carries a 57-point advantage over the second highest driver without a win in this round in Brad Keselowski. To clinch, Truex had to leave Texas with at least a 56-point lead over that position.

“It’s a dream come true after last year’s disappointment, coming into this year with that as our focus and working so hard all year long,” Truex said. “Just the fight in this team, we never quit and we never give up.

“To win seven races, it’s been an amazing season. When you get two seconds in a row and you’re disappointed, it says something about your team and your confidence in them. Just can’t thank everyone enough for their support throughout the years. I’m really excited to go to Homestead and I think we’ll have something for them.”

Crew chief Cole Pearn echoed a similar sentiment and admitted it was a relief to be locked in.

“It’s huge; it’s a bittersweet way to do it, but it was a really good run for us and we did what we needed to do,” Pearn said. “We can for sure focus on Homestead now, which is a relief, and kind of just take next weekend off a bit. We can just go and get ready for Homestead.”

As strong as Truex has been all season long, scooping up stage points and playoff points left and right, he has taken it to another level this postseason. He has three wins this postseason and taking away Talladega, has an average finish of 2.28 in the other seven playoff races.

The runner-up result at Texas marked the first time in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs that Truex has not won at an intermediate track. In retrospect, Truex said lapped traffic played a role in Harvick catching him for the lead.

“I don’t think we had gotten any worse than we had been a couple runs prior,” Truex said. “I think the 4 (Kevin Harvick) just got better. Once he got around the 11 (Denny Hamlin), he was coming fast. I knew if we got in traffic, I was going to be in trouble. I was so loose in traffic. I got behind those lapped cars, turning sideways and he jumped to my outside. He had a better car. He deserved to win, but I thought for sure we could have held them off if it wasn’t for the lapped cars.”

Being set for the Championship 4 with a race to go allows the 78 camp to focus its collective energy on the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The team took part in a test there last month ahead of the season finale.

“It was really beneficial for us, but of course it was just a test,” Pearn said. “I know we’re in a lot better shape now than if we hadn’t gone and tested. Either way, we’ll do what we have to do and give it all we can there.”