By Dustin Albino

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Toyota getting both Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace to advance out of the Round of 16 in 2023 looked to be a longshot entering Saturday’s elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Both cracked the final round of qualifying on Friday, but neither have good track records at Thunder Valley.

The bigger problem was Truex had a seven-point deficit to overcome on Bristol master Kevin Harvick. Joey Logano was another five points ahead, tallying a 12-point advantage into the race. Wallace believed he was in must-win mode, as a cut tire at Kansas Speedway last weekend dropped him to 19 points below the elimination line.

Neither driver visited pit road in the opening stage and scored valuable stage points. With better track position, Wallace finished third to Truex’s ninth. Should the final transfer spot come down to the two Toyota brethren, Wallace erased half of that after 125 laps.

That was the end of either driver having track position all race. Both drivers had to pit at the end of the first stage and dropped towards the tail of the lead lap. At the halfway point, Wallace ranked 18th while Truex was 21st.

While neither Wallace or Truex was flashy, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick had miserable nights going. Logano was 31st at the end of the second stage; Harvick was 33rd.

The real gamechanger came at the start of the final stage. Corey LaJoie wrecked off Turn 2 and bounced back into the field. Logano was tagged in the left-rear wheel, ending his night. As long as both Wallace and Truex finished, at least one of them should advance. Truex came close to wrecking on lap 350, bringing out the race’s final caution when he tagged the frontstretch wall.

Harvick’s pace fell off even more, finishing five laps down in 29th. Despite Wallace finishing one lap down in 14th and Truex two laps off the pace in 19th, it was enough to advance to the Round of 12. Barely. Truex padded a five-point cushion. Wallace was the final driver in, four points above the elimination line.

“To have to come to Bristol and get through — we knew it was going to be tough,” Truex said. “This has not been a very good place for us. We had a decent Bass Pro Toyota tonight. Just got behind on track position. Got a lap down, and then we were kind of stuck. We stuck with it, and just tried to go as hard as we could all night, and luckily it all played out.

“Definitely excited about the next round and the reset, hopefully we will keep from having so much bad luck.”

With the points reset, Truex is tied with William Byron for the championship lead.

Like the opening round, Wallace is the caboose of the 12 drivers advancing. With no playoff points, he’s 14 points below the Round of 8 elimination line. Getting through Bristol alone was a battle, as Wallace was flat worn out.

“Trying to get out of my thought and just emotional,” Wallace said of his feelings. “I said to myself out loud, not on the radio, ‘I‘m proud of you kid.‘ You all know that I rarely do that. Just a way to stick with it, tried to give it away a couple of times and got frustrated with myself; frustrated others.

“But it all worked out. Just what you need to do is execute. This is a special day. I‘m going to cherish it, but can‘t get complacent.”

Wallace said having to overcome the 19-point hole was more stressful than entering the regular season finale at Daytona on the elimination line. Wallace is proud of himself and the No. 23 team for marching into the Round of 12.

“It seems like when your back is against the wall, no matter what the series is, you rise to the occasion,” he said. “You have to keep fighting the good fight and keep pressing on, no matter what‘s thrown at you. And enjoy the process, as stressful as it can get. What a cool night.”

Truex has never won at the three tracks that make up the Round of 12. Wallace won the playoff race at Talladega in 2021.

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