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September 16, 2023

Martin Truex Jr., James Small calm as Bristol elimination race looms

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Martin Truex Jr. and his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team are rarely rattled. Entering the Round of 16 finale below the provisional elimination line this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway is no exception.

Truex, the Regular Season Champion, sits one spot outside the top 12 in the postseason standings, seven points behind Kevin Harvick heading into Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race (6:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App).

The deficit is a result of two uncharacteristically poor weeks — first in the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway, where Truex finished 18th; and then at Kansas, where a punctured tire on Lap 4 ended the No. 19 team’s day early and resulted in a last-place finish.

MORE: Playoff standings before Bristol | At-track photos

Nonetheless, the team, led by crew chief James Small, remains unfazed. Statistically, Bristol is not one of Truex’s strong suits: In 32 starts, he has just two top fives and four top-10 finishes. Friday sparked a strong start to their weekend, though, with a fifth-place qualifying effort, his fifth top-five starting position in the past six Bristol races.

Small and Truex have worked together as crew chief and driver since 2020, though their relationship dates back to 2017 when Small began working with Truex and then-crew chief Cole Pearn at Furniture Row Racing.

“I think just working together for a while helps,” Truex said Friday. “Obviously we’re confident in one another in our abilities. I’ve got a great team. I know what they’re capable of and for me, you can’t change what happened last week or the week before. You just learn from it, move on and try not to let it affect this week.

“I know tomorrow night’s a big race. This hasn’t been our best place by any means. But I look forward to the challenge.”

The circumstances may be uncomfortable, but that’s no bother to a No. 19 team that has won three times this season.

“We don’t get rattled. We don’t change our approach,” Small told Friday. “You know, we believe in our system and everything we do and it’s just the same thing all week. Just trying to make sure we did everything in our power to bring the best car and just prepare as best as possible. Even dragged Martin out to go to the simulator to run some laps so he’s a little more dialed in here.

“Usually for us, the first day at Bristol is usually a big struggle, especially with the new format with such a short practice. And by the end of the practice, we starting getting going a little better, got the car better and obviously he did a good job in qualifying. To qualify fifth — if you would have asked me that this morning, I would said you were stupid.”

Martin Truex Jr. drives his black and orange No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota at Bristol
Meg Oliphant | Getty Images

The Regular Season Champion has never been eliminated from the postseason in the Round of 16, a fact the No. 19 team would love to remain true after Saturday night. A scrub off the wall in Darlington practice bent more suspension than Truex knew or alluded to before taking the green flag for the Southern 500, leading to a subpar performance for a traditionally excellent team. Simple bad luck led to the Kansas tire puncture no one could have seen coming.

“I don’t think any of us would have imagined that that would have been how the first two weeks of our playoffs looked like,” Small said. “But can’t sulk about it. You just gotta get back at it and we’re still in a good position. We still have a shot and go out and race hard. And at the end of the day, hopefully it all works out. And if it doesn’t, we’ve tried our best.”

Small and Truex have faced their fair shares of adversity together, including a winless 2022 season that left them outside the postseason. Their focus doesn’t waver, though, and those difficult times have produced valuable lessons.

“I think since we’ve worked together, we’ve been through a lot of (stuff),” Small said. “A lot of ups and and a lot of races that we could have won and didn’t because of things going wrong. And I think it hardens you, you know? Like, we have the belief in one another and everybody on the team and the engineers and everything that if we just do our jobs right and have clean days, then we can win races.

“I think that’s the beauty of our sport. You don’t get time to dwell on anything. It’s like a washing-machine cycle really — in and out, in and out. I don’t know what other teams are like, but I love that about ours.”

The team’s situation does raise the question of how significantly the championship picture changes if the No. 19 team is unable to advance past Saturday night’s conclusion of the first round.

“I think you could see the 19 as a (Championship) 4 guy, so I think that opens the door for someone to get in there,” said Kyle Busch, a longtime teammate of Truex and two-time Cup Series champion. “I think there were a lot of playoff brackets chosen without the 8 car (Busch) making it out of the (Round of) 16, so probably not very many of them had the 19 out either.”

“Obviously, he’s a championship favorite,” 2021 champion Kyle Larson added. “So if he’s not in it, everyone could live a little easier, but it’s still going to be tough. I mean you still have to go through a lot of other tough competitors. I don’t know, it’s been pretty crazy to see that their bad run at Darlington and misfortune last week can take the championship contender and put him in a situation where he has to have a good night.”

Ross Chastain surged to his first Championship 4 appearance a season ago in his first NASCAR Playoffs. To advance took significant risk in the season’s penultimate race on the final lap at Martinsville Speedway. He understands the outlook of the postseason can change in a single lap.

“Big picture, whoever the four are (who get eliminated), it changes,” Chastain said. “It’s a new puzzle. You’re racing 12 guys, so if those 12 change, it’s going to be different. But I don’t think anybody’s safe.”