Martin Truex Jr. on Daytona 500 front row a big deal just as well

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The immediate talk after Daytona 500 pole qualifying concluded surrounded one driver, Austin Dillon, and one number, 3, which makes its long-anticipated return to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition after 13 years.

The guy on the outside pole’s not a half bad story, either.

Beside the “3,” you’ve got something which fans of the “3” know all too well – an all-black car. Difference is, this one’s No. 78, and is a single-car effort fielded by Furniture Row Racing, driven by new recruit Martin Truex Jr.

Truex’s 2013 was often a comedic tragedy, where it seemed anything that could go wrong did, through no fault of his own. The spiral effect of the Richmond saga eventually led to primary sponsor NAPA Auto Parts leaving Michael Waltrip Racing, then Truex following suit shortly thereafter.

Eventually, he wound up slotting in with FRR, which ascended from midfield obscurity to prominence thanks to Kurt Busch’s efforts behind the wheel.

But Truex, now the lone driver for Barney Visser’s Denver-based effort, was careful to make sure he credited the team first after Sunday’s run.

“It means a ton to me,” said Truex Jr., via the Daytona-Beach News Journal. “Obviously, going to a new team, it’s the kind of thing that you look for.

“The first run out (in practice), out of everyone’s first run, I believe, except (Paul Menard), we ran the quickest lap. I knew we were in the ballpark.”

Truex was careful not to run too much in practice, but he had the speed at his disposal to use for qualifying. And like the all-powerful Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets, Truex’s No. 78 also uses the RCR-built engines.

So in that respect, it wasn’t a surprise to see him so far up the qualifying grid.

Still, Truex – himself a former Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver – expressed some relief he was second rather than first.

“Definitely glad I didn’t knock the 3 off the pole,” Truex said afterwards. “That’s all I’m going to say. We’ll wait until July to get ours.”

In the pantheon of “great story lines,” Truex isn’t the highest on the list. But everyone loves an underdog, and most everyone loves a comeback story.

After Truex’s up-and-down 2013, finishing the Daytona 500 one spot higher next week could tick both of those boxes nicely.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.