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Martin Truex Jr.’s Chase quickly turns from brilliant to unfulfilling

Truex dominated Round 1, but consecutive subpar finishes have him on the playoff bubble entering Sunday’s elimination race.

Robert Laberge/Getty Images

In the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Martin Truex Jr. bookended the bracket with wins and nearly triumphed in the middle race. That performance bestowed him with the status as the championship favorite, a ranking he had previously shared with a handful of other drivers. And with how the remaining schedule set up, it appeared conceivable that the winning could continue unimpeded.

But the Chase can be fickle. Success in one round doesn't guarantee success in the next. All it takes is one slip for a driver to suddenly teeter on the cutline, flirting with getting knocked out of NASCAR's playoffs.

That precarious position is where Truex sits in entering Sunday's second-round elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway. Provisionally he would advance to the semifinals, 13 points ahead of Austin Dillon, the first driver on the wrong side of the threshold to remain championship-eligible.

However, with Talladega's knack for jumbling the Chase standings like a toddler would shake a snow globe, no points lead is really secure. Especially as tenuous as the one Truex holds.

For instance, in each of the past two Talladega elimination races, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin had larger point-cushions than Truex's, and each had them disappear due to the various nuances that come into play whenever NASCAR competes at its two restrictor-plate tracks, Talladega and Daytona International Speedway.

Although not a dire predicament like the must-win situation Chase Elliott is facing -- the rookie will get dropped from the playoffs unless he can conjure a Talladega victory -- Truex certainly fell short of his performance ceiling in the first two Round 2 races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

His current residence on the bubble was facilitated by consecutive mechanical gremlins. A broken clutch during Truex's final pit stop negated a certain top-10 and he finished 13th at Charlotte. Last week, a faulty fueling mechanism prevented the Furniture Row Racing crew from refueling the No. 78 car with its maximum allotment during the middle portions of the race at Kansas Speedway. Truex finished 11th.

Adding to the sense of unfulfillment, the second round was supposed to be Truex's wheelhouse. In spring races at Kansas and Charlotte, he led a staggering 84.5 percent of all laps punctuated by a record-breaking Charlotte victory where Truex led 392 of 400 laps.

How many laps did Truex lead in the fall Kansas and Charlotte races? Zero.

"At the end of the day it's not the way we wanted to perform, we weren't happy with the results," Truex said. "But, at the same time it could have been worse. ... It wasn't good by any means, but at least we're still in the hunt here at Talladega."

To Truex's credit, he did salvage respectable finishes that prevented him from joining Elliott on the must-win list. Still, it does raise a larger problem.

Parts breaking and the element of luck have always factored into deciding championships, but when a team is repeatedly slowed by such issues it raises a bigger question of whether it's capable of winning a title. And after a regular season filled with numerous wins that slipped away because of miscues or happenstance, Truex and FFR are facing such uncertainty.

"We're going to make it or we're not," Truex said. "We're going to go race and do the best we can do. Worrying about it, thinking about scenarios and what you have to do, all these things -- it doesn't do anybody any good.

"Hopefully we can move on, so we can take advantage of this great team we have, the great race cars we have and the season we've been able to put together. It would be a shame to lose it all here so hopefully we can just get it done and do the best job we can do no matter what."

Driver and team avoided missteps during Round 1. Now, though, in the quarterfinals with the pressure intensified, it's been a return to not capitalizing on speed that at times made it look as if Truex couldn't lose. Barring a turnaround on Sunday, it could very well prompt a sooner than expected elimination.