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NASCAR regular season champ at risk of playoff elimination after Kansas crash

Five laps into the second race of the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. is at risk of elimination next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

That’s because the 2017 champion appears to have punctured a right rear tire that spun the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota and sent them into the Turn 3 wall on Sunday at Kansas Speedway. The contact appeared to break a toe link, a key suspension component, and the car was towed to the garage area, ending the day for Truex.

After a middling race last week at Darlington, Truex will finish 36th and will most likely be below the elimination cut line before the start of the final race of the first round at Bristol. A top-seeded driver has never failed to advance into the second round since this format was instituted in 2014.

Truex suspected immediately upon taking the green flag that something was amiss but reasonably suspected it was low air pressure. Teams start the pressures really low at the start of a run as pressure builds with heat into a run.

“I knew something was up for sure, just didn’t realize it was going to blow the tire out,” Truex said after being released from the infield care center. “I felt like the right rear was soft. I was hoping it was going to go down on the straightaway, not going into turn three. Really unfortunate.

“In hindsight, I guess I should have just pitted, but at that point in time, you just don’t know if the car is just really tight or what’s going on. It’s a real shame. I hate for my team. We had a really, really fast Bass Pro Toyota. I can’t imagine about being this unlucky.”

As for what it means concerning his championship run …

“We will find out when today is over,” Truex said. “There is not a thing we can do about it right now.”

Truex and crew chief James Small were adamant in real time that their car should have been towed to pit road and not the garage. If it were towed to pit road, Truex would be placed on the crash clock with a chance to repair the clock, no matter how unlikely that would have been.

A NASCAR representative on Twitter maintained the correct policy is to tow un-drivable crashed cars to the garage, resulting in an automatic DNF, ending their race.

Spec tire supplier Goodyear also confirmed a puncture in the No. 19’s tire, meaning the incident was not the result of air pressure or other setup decisions by the team. Joe Gibbs Racing believes Truex drove over something while driving off pit road prior to the start of the race.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.