BRISTOL, Tenn. — Martin Truex Jr. doesn’t want to be the heel and has 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 a transfer spot, Truex was asked by NBC Sports if he will have to be a jerk on the track this time.
“It’s possible,” he said.
Is he comfortable with that?
“No, of course not.”
That Truex would consider being the type of driver who puts the bumper to another competitor shows the intensity of these playoffs. Then again, the regular-season champion has never been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Should Truex advance, the points will reset and he’ll be back among the leaders entering the next round.
He’s got to get there first.
Friday night was a good start. Truex qualified fifth.
Kevin Harvick holds the final transfer spot and is seven points ahead of Truex. Reigning Cup champion Joey Logano is 12 points ahead of Truex. Chris Buescher and Christopher Bell each are 13 points ahead of Truex.
Logano starts 28th, Buescher qualified 20th and Bell starts on the pole for the race (6:30 p.m. ET on USA Network).
There is a path to the second round for Truex, but aggression could 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 he has top-10 finishes (four) at the track.
“All of the times we’ve run here it’s always been a flat tire or a loose wheel,” Truex said of his woes at this track. “I can’t even use both hands to count all of the times that has happened. It’s just been a tough place, hopefully no bad luck (Saturday) night and we can go just have a smooth race and hopefully have the performance to get the job done.”
Harvick, who has made it known that in his last season in Cup he’s taking more than giving, concedes that restraint could be as important as aggression Saturday night, especially for those trying to move to the next round of the playoffs.
“You can be forceful and do other things, but you’re gonna be aggressive and race hard and do the things that you need to do,” Harvick said. “But, typically, if you run somebody over, you’re gonna get run back over, so you just have to balance all that stuff.”
Still, that might be hard to avoid doing. The bottom lane will be dominant early with the PJ1 traction spray there, but it will wear and the field will migrate to the top lane.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who enters the race 19 points out of a transfer spot, says a more effective tool to aggressively making a move is to use a slower car as a pick on the car one is trying to pass.
“I think definitely using the slower cars is the preferred way,” Stenhouse said.
“Moving somebody running the top of the racetrack is a little more difficult. You don’t want to wreck somebody, right? When you’re running the bottom of the racetrack, you can move somebody and you don’t necessarily feel like you’re going to wreck them. You can move them off the bottom, get underneath them and make the pass.
“When you run the top, if you get into them and you’re running that 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 one of us wants to wreck anyone on purpose. So that’s where the bump and run, I feel like, is more difficult when we run the top of the racetrack.”
But then Stenhouse notes: “It’s going to happen. You look at the way this race plays out.”