The battle for second, third, fourth, and fifth was hotly contested for 500 laps Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
But the first place spot was hardly ever in doubt.
Martin Truex Jr. led 464 laps on the way to a dominating win in the First Data 500 to lock in a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series championship in three weeks at Homestead-Miami.
Truex drove his way into first on Lap 30 after starting the day third. The rest of the day was all his. The only time he didn't lead was coming out of a caution on Lap 257. Truex and the rest of the leaders pitted for fresh tires for the final laps of Stage 2, whereas playoff driver Kyle Larson stayed out in an attempt to pick up stage points. Larson, who struggled to stay on the lead lap to that point, outraced Truex for six laps before the No. 19 got back in front to win Stage 2.
Truex was first after every other restart the rest of the way, and at one point built a better than 3 second lead as cars simply tried to get close enough to make it a race, to little avail.
"I can't believe we just won Martinsville, man," Truex said in victory lane. "Miami is awesome, but we've wanted to win here for a long time. But the guys have worked so hard, I've worked so hard. I used to just be terrible here, and just an awesome bunch of guys."
Sunday's win is redemption for Truex, who was leading in the final laps of the 2018 fall race at Martinsville before getting bumped out of the way by eventual race winner Joey Logano. Logano went on to win the Cup Series championship.
Truex now hopes to follow Logano's path on the way to his second championship.
"The cool part is we're going to Homestead again, and that was what we tried to accomplish this weekend," he said. "We don't have to worry about points anymore, we can just get to work on our Homestead car. Just honestly, I'm so excited and proud to drive this thing, and our team is unbelievable."
Truex had never won a Cup Series race on a short track prior to 2019. Now, Sunday's victory is his third on a short track this season. He has two wins at Richmond Raceway earlier this year.
Truex's win overshadowed a career day by William Byron, who started the day 11th but worked his way into the top 5 around Lap 200. Byron, a second year Cup Series driver who has yet to win at NASCAR's highest level, ran more laps in the top 5 than any race of his career.
Byron had the best chance of any driver to get to Truex and challenge for the lead. The No. 24 car was on Truex's heels with 45 laps to go before Truex eventualy pulled away like he had done all night.
"He was really strong," Byron said of Truex. "I could work my brake bias a little bit on the car and gain a little bit, and then I'd get to him and I'd heat him up a lot and then kind of fall back. I don't really know. He was super strong. Our car bounced a little bit on the short run, which was tough to kind of get around. But overall it was really good day."
Sunday was Byron's second second place finish of 2019, and his fifth top-5. It's his first time finishing inside the top 20 in four Cup Series races at Martinsville.
"This isn't a place that I've loved coming to, and it just clicked this weekend," Byron said. "The things we did with the car going into qualifying and then obviously our race. Super excited but second is not super fun, either. We'll try to get one spot better next time."
Brad Keselowski finished third. Playoff drivers Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney were fourth and fifth. Hamlin started the race from the pole position, and led the first 30 laps.
Playoff drivers Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were eighth and ninth.
Logano and Hamlin were battling for fourth on Lap 458 when Hamlin pushed Logano up the track. The No. 22 cut a tire before eventually losing the tire and spinning in Turn 1.
Logano and Hamlin were involved in a dustup on pit road following the race.
"We were having a discussion,everything was civil, and then like Joey does, he does a little push and then runs away," Hamlin said. "He said, 'Do you wanna go?' I said, 'Yes, I'm here.' But then he runs away."
"I just wanted to talk to him about it and was pretty frustrated," Logano said. "He just came off the corner like there wasn't another car on the outside of him and ruined our day.
"Just the playoffs. It just happens. It's part of it. Emotions runs high."
Everything going on on the track ultimately didn't matter, because it was all happening in Truex's rearview.
Now the first time Martinsville winner can look ahead to Miami.
"I don't think anyone expected that," Truex said.
"To lead that many laps is pretty incredible here. Big day, big win, and I think Homestead is the bonus, so who knows."