NASCAR Cup Series
Martin Truex Jr. relishes second chance with NASCAR's playoff system
NASCAR Cup Series

Martin Truex Jr. relishes second chance with NASCAR's playoff system

Updated Sep. 18, 2023 10:07 a.m. ET

BRISTOL, Tenn. — NASCAR's version of the postseason is beauty or beast depending on the view and the results.

Martin Truex Jr. experienced both over the past few weeks.

Truex nearly made the history no regular-season NASCAR Cup Series champion would want to accomplish. He almost saw his championship hopes evaporate in the first round. 

Since the introduction of the elimination-style championship format in 2014, no regular-season champion had been eliminated in the first round.


Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass! 

Truex entered the final race of the three-race round seven points below the cutline. Despite a 19th-place finish Saturday night at Bristol with just two stage points, Truex managed to finish five points above the cutline and avoid being one of the four winless drivers in the round with the fewest points.

And now? Truex is tied for the lead in the Cup points standings with the way the system works.

"That's the beauty of this deal," Truex said. "We dodged a big bullet. A huge bullet. Those first two races were pathetic. ... We're back where we need to be and now we can reset and go from here."

In trying to emulate other sports where the regular-season champion might have an edge but not a guarantee, NASCAR's playoff system had a test of the balance of what that edge should be for someone who was most consistent during the first 26 races.

Through the regular season and postseason, drivers earn playoff points — five points for a race win and one point for a stage win. The top-10 in the regular-season standings earn a "bonus" of playoff points on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.

When the three-race playoff rounds begin, playoff drivers have their points reset to the same amount (2,000 in the first round, 3,000 in the quarterfinal round and 4,000 in the semifinal round) plus the playoff points earned during the year. They then have three races to either win and advance or earn enough race points added to their totals to avoid being among the lowest four.

After the field is cut to four after three three-race rounds, the remaining four vie for the title at Phoenix with the best finisher among those four crowned the champion.

Martin Truex Jr. on if the playoff format needs to be changed

Truex, with his three race wins and six stage wins and 15 bonus points for winning the regular-season championship, has 36 playoff points. He entered the first round, which has 16 drivers, with a 29-point cushion on 13th (the provisional cutoff).

That nearly wasn't enough as Truex didn't diagnose a broken piece following a scrub with the wall in practice for the playoff opener at Darlington and he finished 18th. A punctured tire a few laps into the race in Kansas resulted in a 36th-place finish, and all of a sudden he found himself seven points below the cutoff.

"It's not easy at all," Truex said. "It's a terrible spot to be in. None of us wanted to be there. I didn't like it but at the end of the day, you can't worry that much about it.

"You have to try to focus on what you can control. Obviously, it was a lot tougher to control the first two weeks. We had a good plan to come here and race and not overthink it and not beat ourselves, and we did that."

Before the race, Truex dismissed any idea that maybe the format should be changed.

"I don't think so. We just had two terrible races," Truex said. "That's kind of the way it is. You can't afford to have bad races."

Actually, Truex could thanks to the regular-season championship. If he had finished second in the Cup standings, he would have had five fewer playoff points and wouldn't have won a tiebreaker over Joey Logano or Kevin Harvick, who were five points behind him.

"It just shows you what can happen in our sport, how hard it is," Truex team owner Joe Gibbs said. "We probably made some mistakes at Darlington, which is one of his best racetracks. Hit the wall there. Probably should have taken a different approach on it."

Martin Truex Jr. on getting through to the next round after Bristol

Drivers either like the system because it gives everyone who hasn't had a great regular season a chance for a successful year, or they are just resigned to this is the way it's going to be.

"It has to be OK because they created the system," said Bristol winner Denny Hamlin. "We've talked about this for years. You can have nine wins, 10 wins, it just doesn't matter in the regular season if you don't win in the playoffs or don't have a strong three races.

"They've shrunk the sample size so much that it's hard to get a real feel for who can win it all because you've got so many variables and such a small sample size."

Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch noted that the bad races can happen at any time, and in the regular season it impacts the number of playoff points a driver gets as a bonus for their regular-season finish in the standings.

"It's a valid point, but it's a hard one to argue," Busch said prior to the race. "We were third in points and we had four out of six weeks go bad and then we were down to 11th in points.

"I don't feel sorry for [Truex]. It sucks that it's this time of year. We could have won the regular-season championship if it wasn't for four bad weeks."

While drivers don't necessarily feel bad, they recognize the situation. 

"These things work in weird ways," said 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick.  "He probably hasn't had that happen all year and then it happens in the first round of the playoffs. It's definitely frustrating, especially when you're in that position.

"That group has had a phenomenal year and won races and then you have one moment that could dictate your whole season."

Bass Pro Shops Night Race highlights

Harvick, who was eliminated, said prior to the race that competitors know the playoff results don't necessarily indicate whether a team was successful throughout the year. 

"It's a tough scenario because it makes it exciting and stuff to talk about," Harvick said. "I think even in the championship that I won and some of the ones that I've lost, it doesn't really represent your whole year.

"You get to the point of making the playoffs and trying to get through the rounds and doing the things that you do, but it's still not representative of what you had as a year."

Truex ended up with finishes of 18th, 36th and 19th in the first round.

And he still advanced.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," Truex said. "You can't have worse races than we did the first two. It goes back to the bonus points that we started with and without those we would have been screwed.

"And it just shows you how important they are. Three terrible finishes in Round 1 and we made it through because of those bonus points. ... If you don't have those bonus points, you've got to be perfect. It's hard to be perfect for 10 races."

Truex wasn't about to spend any time celebrating just getting out of the first round with the second round starting this weekend at Texas.

"You've got to go to Texas and have got to get it done again," said Truex, the 2017 Cup champion.

"It's just playoff racing. It is what it is."

Thinking Out Loud

Here's the dirt on no dirt: Both of the Bristol Motor Speedway races next season will be on the concrete. After three years when the spring race at the track was done with the cars racing on tons of dirt piled on the high-banked short track, NASCAR will have two races on the concrete.

The dirt races were unique and intriguing. But it was difficult for NASCAR to have a Cup car on dirt because they didn't feel they could take out the windshield and still have a protective screen like most cars that regularly race on dirt. Because of that, the track had to be drier than a dirt track should be because too much mud being kicked up would cake on the windshield.

Christopher Bell wins 2023 Food City Dirt Race at Bristol

Couple that with a suspension not designed to race on dirt the way the fastest dirt-specific cars have, and while it was a unique show, it just looked like a struggle.

The dirt race was fun and entertaining. But the concrete at Bristol, depending on the style of car, can provide the same thing. The dirt had run its course and while it would have been fine to have another year on the dirt, this decision isn't a bad one.

In The News

--NASCAR has not set a release date for the 2024 schedule, but the preseason Clash is set for a return to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Feb. 4, 2024, event will include another series racing on the temporary track built inside the iconic venue — the NASCAR Mexico Series will race on the same day.

--Richard Childress Racing swapped over-the-wall pit crews for Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon. Dillon's crew has been stronger this year and Busch has advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

--JR Motorsports announced three of its drivers have re-signed for next year. Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Brandon Jones will return in 2024. The team has not yet announced a replacement for Josh Berry, who is going to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

Social Spotlight

Stat of the Day

Denny Hamlin now stands alone in third place in playoff race wins. Jimmie Johnson has 29, Kevin Harvick 16 and Hamlin 13. Joey Logano has 12, Tony Stewart 11 and Martin Truex Jr. 10.

They Said It

"As Katt Williams said, ‘A hater can't stand a winner.'" —Denny Hamlin on being booed following his Bristol win

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
NASCAR Cup Series
Martin Truex Jr
Denny Hamlin

Get more from NASCAR Cup Series Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more