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 consecutive.
Wow, did he need it.
Truex has just one top-10 finish through the first seven races of the playoffs — it forced 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.”
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, which means barring a Byron disaster, there’s 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.
Also below the cutline is Tyler Reddick, who drives for Hamlin and Michael Jordan at 23XI Racing, and Chris Buescher of RFK Racing. Buescher can only make the championship race with a win at Martinsville.
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.
“This weekend, (Reddick is) unfortunately competitors, and I will treat them as that.”
Truex will lead non-playoff drivers Ty Gibbs and Chase Briscoe to the green. Hamlin 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, Buscher in 18th and Reddick in 19th.
ALMIROLA OUT AT SHR
Aric Almirola announced Saturday that he’s not returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next season, a year after he postponed his planned 2023 retirement because sponsor Smithfield elected to remain in NASCAR.
But Smithfield said Saturday morning that “the time has come for Smithfield to end our NASCAR partnership,” and Almirola must now reconsider his immediate future.
Smithfield has sponsored for Almirola since 2012.
“I’d like to not quit cold turkey. I think there are some opportunities, but it’s hard,” Almirola said. “It’s challenging to figure out things that make sense for race teams to do it part-time. Most race teams want somebody to run full-time and race for a championship, so we’ll see if we can get it worked out.
“I’d love to still scratch the itch, but just don’t want to do it like I have been doing it for the last 12 years, where it’s 38 weeks and it’s a grind.”
The 39-year-old did not rule out running Xfinity Series races in the future. Noah Gragson has been rumored to be the top candidate to replace Almirola in the No. 10 Ford at SHR.
Almirola has been with SHR since 2018. He scored two of his three career Cup wins with the organization and finished a career-high fifth in the points in 2018.
Kevin Harvick is retiring from NASCAR at the end of the season and SHR has already said Josh Berry will drive the No. 4 next season.
ODDS AND ENDS
Kyle Larson is the championship betting favorite, per FanDuel Sportsbook. … The winner of Martinsville’s playoffs race has gone on to win the Cup title that same season seven different times, tied with Homestead for most in the series. Chase Elliott in 2020 was the last driver to win Martinsville and the Cup title. … The worst Martinsville finish by a driver who still went on to win the championship was Larson at 14th in 2021.
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