For the third time in this year's playoffs, NASCAR regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. is facing elimination and wondering how his title chances have exploded spectacularly.
Truex heads into Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway tied with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin at 17 points below the cutoff line. There are six drivers vying for two spots in next week's championship-deciding finale, and Truex needs a rapid turnaround to have any shot at racing for a second title.
He got a boost Saturday with a pole-winning run in qualifying. Truex's lap at 94.153 mph was good enough for his third pole of the season and second straight.
Wow, did he need it.
Truex has just one top-10 finish through the first seven races of the playoffs -- forcing him to stave off elimination at the end of the rounds of 16 and 12 -- and although he started from the pole last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, an engine failure put him in the same spot Sunday at the Virginia short track.
"It's been really tough, and nothing has really gone right," Truex said Saturday. "I thought we were sitting in a really good position last week. Things were going pretty well, and then we pit and the bottom falls out. We will reset. We are ready to go again. This is a new week and a new opportunity, and we've been in this position before. Let's just go see what we can do."
Truex has won three of the past eight races at the 0.526-mile short track but none since the introduction of NASCAR's Next Gen race car in 2022.
Christopher Bell, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, and 2021 champion Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports claimed the first two spots in the final four. William Byron of Hendrick has a solid shot at adding another Chevrolet to the championship field based on his sizeable points margin. So barring a Byron disaster, there is really only one spot up for grab.
Among Truex's challengers are teammate Hamlin, who leads all active drivers at Martinsville with five career wins, and Ryan Blaney of Team Penske. Blaney is above the cutline and trying to ensure a Ford is represented in the finale.
Hamlin, meanwhile, is trying to balance his own desire to make the championship race with his hopes that Reddick can earn a spot for the team that Hamlin co-owns.
"The way I see it is I've got two shots to get into the final four," Hamlin said. "I certainly would rather do it on the driver's side, because there are going to be far less opportunities to do that than what it would be on the owner's side."
Truex will lead non-playoff drivers Ty Gibbs (94.115 mph) and Chase Briscoe (94.106 mph) to the green. Hamlin (94.055 mph) qualified fourth and was followed by Larson, non-playoff driver Bubba Wallace and Bell.
The remainder of the playoff field was completed by Blaney in 11th, Byron in 16th, Buescher in 18th and Reddick in 19th.
"Not happy about qualifying, just the way we've been right on the edge of the bubble here the last few times," Byron said. "But I think our race car in race trim is honestly pretty good, so we've just got to focus on that now. We can't change qualifying ... but we'll fight from there."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.