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September 17, 2023

Resilience a factor as Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace storm into Round of 12

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Martin Truex Jr. entered Saturday’s Round of 16 elimination race seven points to the outside looking in. Bubba Wallace was 19 points shy. Both left Bristol Motor Speedway having done enough to advance to the Round of 12.

The Regular Season Champion, Truex advanced by a scant five points with a 19th-place finish, one lap down. Wallace, competing in his first postseason venture, nabbed the final of 12 available spots by four points over former NASCAR Cup Series champions Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.

MORE: Race results | At-track photos: Bristol

A Regular Season Champion had never been eliminated from the opening round of the playoffs. Finishes of 18th at Darlington and 36th – last – at Kansas put the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team in a hole entering Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops Night Bristol Night Race.

Truex’s record at the high-banked, 0.533-mile bullring is far from stellar, but the 2017 Cup champion did enough on Saturday to advance to the next round and keep his title hopes alive.

“I think tonight was kind of a typical Bristol race for us,” Truex said.” You know, we were pretty decent early when we were up front, and then we lost track position, and it was a battle and a struggle from there. So, luckily, it was enough. It wasn’t pretty, but you know, after the last two weeks, to come out here in a good spot is good. And hopefully, the bad luck’s out of the way from here on out.”

James Small, crew chief of the No. 19 car, said post-race that he and the crew came into Bristol “really worried” because of Truex’s poor stats. But average was enough Saturday as Logano crashed out and Harvick was off-pace, leaving points on the table for Truex to nab.

“It’s statistically our worst track outside of superspeedways,” Small told NASCAR. “We just pounded along all night long, and we worked on the car and got a little better, and luckily, that last run, it came to life a little more, and other guys had problems, and we managed to survive.

“It’s been a hell of a round, and we’ll put it behind us and reset.”

A punctured tire at Lap 4 at Kansas was the team’s ultimate setback in this first round, sending Truex into the outside SAFER barrier. That contact, Small said, resulted in a potential sprained wrist for Truex to nurse through 500 laps at Bristol.

“He’s like the Iron Man – but in true Martin fashion, he didn’t go and get help,” Small laughed. “He’s a hard-ass. I’m glad he got through it. Last week was a killer, and to rebound from that scrape through was a big relief for everyone.”

Indeed, Truex muscled through a grueling race that ended on a green-flag stretch of 131 laps.

“It hurts pretty bad,” Truex said, “but it didn’t slow me down any. Just had to grit my teeth, and I probably needed a mouthguard tonight. We got through it. I should be good to go next week.”

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

Truex has plenty of playoff experience to carry into the Round of 12. Wallace, on the other hand, had never faced elimination quite like he did Saturday. The driver of the No. 23 Toyota for 23XI Racing did his part through the opening round, though, by finishing seventh at Darlington and overcoming a Kansas crash due to a flat tire while running second, an issue that left him 32nd in Kansas before a 14th-place result at Bristol.

MORE: Champs Logano, Harvick ousted

“Trying to gather my thoughts and man, just emotional,” Wallace said. “I said to myself out loud – not on the radio – ‘Proud of you, kid.’ And we all know I rarely do that. Just, way to stick with it. Tried to throw it away a couple of times. Got frustrated with myself, frustrated with others, but it all worked out. What you need to do is execute.

“This is a special day and gotta cherish it, but can’t get complacent. We know Texas is up. We’re OK there. But we’ve gotta come out swinging and come out on the right end of it.”

That Wallace overcame a 19-point deficit to advance without winning was significant, a display of the grind it took to advance through Bristol. Opting not to pit during the race’s first caution at Lap 69 was, in Wallace’s mind, a turning point.

“I think the strategy at the beginning was a game-changer, staying out there,” Wallace said. “We watched last year’s race and had seen that tires were not that big of an advantage. So I thought that was key and gave us our buffer.”

During a pre-race press conference, Kurt Busch – 23XI Racing’s self-coined CFD (Captain of the Fun Department) – said the tiger-striped Air Jordan 1 Low OG “Chinese New Years – Year of the Tiger” sneakers he was wearing were symbolic of what Wallace needed Saturday night – the eye of the tiger. Busch beamed with pride after the race as Wallace earned his spot into the next round.

“This is huge,” Busch, the 2004 champion, told “This is something that takes a team all the way through – whether it’s simulator work, whether it’s our owner (and race winner Denny Hamlin) that’s doing burnouts as I’m speaking. There’s a strategy call. There’s a driver duty. There’s a pit-crew duty.

“This is all the teamwork that I’ve talked about for years on how I’ve lost races and won races. I’m so happy to see all of this.”

Crew chief Bootie Barker was behind the strategy call that helped keep Wallace in the picture. But after the call was made, Wallace had to execute on track. And he did.

That didn’t come as a surprise to Barker, who has been with 23XI Racing since its inception – as has Wallace.

“I’ve seen the progression with all of us for two years now,” Barker said. “I knew tonight was going to be hard. Last week, we were lights out; it just didn’t work out. But no, I expect us to be this good.”

Hamlin, the team’s co-owner, celebrated the win at Bristol after leading 142 laps. Now, his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team and his two 23XI Racing entries – piloted by Wallace and Kansas winner Tyler Reddick – make up 25% of the remaining playoff contenders.

“I’m really happy with where that team is progressing to and really happy for Bubba,” Hamlin said. “I think the highest he’s ever finished is 20-something points. So he’s doing well. He’s really working on his craft, and he’s doing all the right things, and he’s studying the right things, and he’s really working with the team well.

“(He) and Tyler are working really well together. And yeah, I’m very happy with the trajectory that that whole organization’s on. I mean, not three years complete, to have two cars now in the Round of 12, it’s very, very humbling. And certainly, our goal was going into the year to have two cars in the playoffs. Now, to have two in the next round, this is just icing on the cake. The key this is nothing but bonus from here on out.”