Will a cutting race at Bristol make qualifying drivers more aggressive?
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t want to be the villain, and he’s spent his racing career trying to avoid being that type of driver.
But as the regular-season champion heads into Saturday night’s elimination race outside the transfer district, NBC Sports asked Truex if he’ll have to be a fool on the track this time.
“It’s possible,” he said.
Is he comfortable with that?
“No, of course not.”
That Truex is the type of driver who puts up a bumper for another competitor shows the intensity of these qualifying. Then again, the regular season champion isn’t eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
If Truex advances, the points will reset and he will be back among the leaders entering the next round.
He has to get there first.
Friday night was off to a good start. Truex qualified fifth.
Kevin Harvick occupies the final transfer spot and has a seven-point lead over Truex. Cup champion Joey Logano has a 12-point lead over Truex. Chris Buescher and Christopher Bell each hold a 13-point lead over Truex.
Logano starts 28th, and Buscher qualifies 20th The bell starts on the column For the Race (6:30 p.m. ET on USA Network).
There is a path for Trux to the second round, but aggression may be the key. His record at Bristol is abysmal for a former cup champion. He has failed to finish more races at Bristol (five) than in the top 10 (four) at the track.
“All the times we’ve run here, there’s always been a flat tire or a loose wheel,” Truex said of his problems at this track. “I can’t even use both hands to count all the times it’s happened. It’s been a tough place, and hopefully there’s no bad luck (Saturday) and we can have a smooth race and hopefully we’ll have the performance to get the job done.
Harvick, who has declared himself taking more than giving in his final Cup season, acknowledges that restraint may be just as important as aggression on Saturday night, especially for those trying to move on to the next round of the playoffs.
“You can be strong and do other things, but you’re going to be aggressive and race hard and do the things you need to do,” Harvick said. “But, usually, if you run someone over, you’re going to get run over again, so you just have to balance all those things.”
However, it may be difficult to avoid doing so. The bottom track will be dominant early with the PJ1 traction spray there, but it will wear down and the field will move to the top track.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who enters the race with a 19-point lead over the transfer point, says the most effective tool for making a strong move is to use a slower car as a pick-me-up for the car one is trying to pass.
“I definitely think slower cars are the preferred method,” Stenhouse said.
“Moving someone running at the top of a racetrack is a little more difficult. You don’t want to destroy someone, right? When you’re running at the bottom of a racetrack, you can move someone and not necessarily feel like you’re going to destroy them. You can move them from Down and get under them and do the pass.
“When you’re running from the top, if you get into them and you’re running close to the wall, the only option is if they move up a little bit, they’re in the fence. I don’t think any of us want to intentionally destroy anyone. So, I think bumping and running becomes more difficult When we run at the top of the racetrack.
But then Stenhouse notes: “It will happen.” “Look at the way this race is going.”