Martin Truex Jr. has slumped into Bristol Motor Speedway fighting for his season.
Truex won the regular-season title but two bad races to open NASCAR's playoffs has him on the brink of elimination headed into Saturday night's race at Bristol, Tennessee. The bottom four drivers in the 16-driver field will be cut from the championship sprint and Truex, winner of three races this season, is 13th — below the cutline.
A cut tire three laps into last weekend's race at Kansas — and an 18th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington — has Truex in serious trouble headed into one of his weaker tracks. In 32 previous starts on Bristol's concrete configuration, a winless Truex has a meager four top-10 finishes.
“It's obviously a terrible spot to be in,” Truex said Friday. "Last week we didn't even get a chance to race, which was disappointing. Coming off a tough Darlington race, and then, you know, two laps in (at Kansas) you feel like you're in trouble and a flat tire. Turns out you ran something over. It's just terrible bad luck. We'll do the best we can. But obviously it's a bad spot to be in.”
Bubba Wallace, Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell also are below the cutline. Kevin Harvick, who is retiring at the end of the season, is seven points ahead of Truex above the cutline. Kyle Larson and Tyler Reddick have both advanced to the next round with victories in the opening two playoff races.
“It is what it is, you go race as hard as you can and where it falls, it falls,” Harvick said. “I don't worry about those things anymore.”
Truex did seem worried — at least subdued — about the task ahead. Weather is already a potential added headache and a forecast of rain for Saturday night led NASCAR to decide more than a day in advance to move the scheduled start up by one hour on the half-mile track.
“I know tomorrow night's a big race, this place hasn't been our best place by any means, but I'm looking forward to the challenge,” Truex said. “It's going to be what it's going to be, and we've just got to go do our best.”
Christopher Bell made NASCAR playoff history by winning his third consecutive pole — the first driver to win the top starting spot for the first three playoff races since the postseason format began in 2004.
Bell turned a lap at 126.997 mph in his Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing in the Friday night qualifying session. He also won the pole at Darlington and Kansas to open the playoffs, but only managed an eighth-place finish last week for his efforts.
He has five poles on the season but only one win.
“If I've learned anything it's that qualifying means nothing for the race,” Bell said.
Denny Hamlin nearly knocked his teammate from the top starting spot as the last driver to make a qualifying run. Hamlin came up short at 126.930 mph.
“It doesn't get much closer than that at Bristol,” said Bell. “That's crazy tight.”
William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports qualified third in a Chevrolet and was followed by McDowell in a Ford, Truex in a Toyota and Brad Keselowski in a Ford.
Chase Elliott and Ty Gibbs, who are not racing for the championship, qualified seventh and eighth and posted the exact same speed. Wallace was ninth and Corey LaJoie, another non-playoff driver, rounded out the top 10.
STENHOUSE'S LAST SHOT
Stenhouse opened the year with a bang at the Daytona 500, but he's had just one top-five finish since and finds himself likely to be eliminated Saturday night.
He could aim for a miracle, though, and Bristol in April was his only other top-five finish this year. Bristol was covered in dirt when Stenhouse finished fourth; the dirt is gone for this race.
“Our thought process is we’ve just got a really good opportunity to make something happen,” Stenhouse said. “It’s a great racetrack for us. One of my favorite racetracks that we go to. We need a good day to make it into the playoffs. We want to win. We finished second there quite a few times and yeah, no better time to get the first win than right now.”
BUSCH IN GOOD SHAPE
Kyle Busch in his first season driving for Richard Childress Racing with a strong shot at advancing. He is seventh in the standings.
He won three races early to start his new career endeavor, but was inconsistent leading into the playoffs. He finished 11th at Darlington and seventh at Kansas to give him some breathing room ahead of one of Busch's best tracks. Busch has eight career Cup Series wins on the Bristol concrete, including three wins in the last nine Bristol races.
His 16 short-track wins are the most among active drivers, and, RCR this week made a crew swap between Busch and teammate Austin Dillon. The swap moved all pit crew members except for the fuelers because Dillon’s crew has been faster and more consistent throughout the season.
“If you can take a step from an ‘8’ or a ‘9‘ crew to a ‘9” or a ‘10’ type crew, you’ll take it,” Busch said Friday. "I wasn’t the one who was pushing it or forcing it, by any means, but made the suggestion — probably not first — but it all came together through everybody.”
Busch was eliminated from the playoffs in this round last year.
“I look forward to this year and hopefully being able to have a normal Kyle Bristol race and get out of here with some good points and move on to the next round, if not maybe a win,” Busch said.
ODDS AND ENDS
Kyle Larson is the favorite to win Saturday night, per FanDuel Sportsbook. ... Ford drivers have won three of the last four races at Bristol, but all three drivers were from different organizations. ... The race winner started 19th or worse in four of the last five short-track races. ... Bristol has had seven different winners in the last seven races. ... Denny Hamlin is in the best position of all drivers who haven't already clinched. He needs just 12 points to advance into the second round.
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