A shell-shocked 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. The bottom four drivers in the 16-driver field will be cut from the championship sprint, and Truex, the winner of three races this season, is below the cutline in 13th.
A cut tire three laps into last weekend's race at Kansas and an 18th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington have Truex in serious trouble heading into one of his weaker tracks. In 32 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 are also below the cutline. Kevin Harvick, who is retiring at the end of the season, is seven points ahead of Truex in 12th. 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 -- or 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."
Stenhouse opened the year with a bang at the Daytona 500, but he has 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."
Kyle Busch, in his first season driving for Richard Childress Racing, is seventh in the standings with a strong shot at advancing.
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 past nine races.
His 16 short-track wins are the most among active drivers.
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.