FORT WORTH, TX – The second race of the Round of 8 is upon us. Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Texas Motor Speedway will serve as the third to last race of the season too.
That’s what makes this race so interesting. Eight drivers still have Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship hopes and this race and next week’s at the ISM Raceway in Phoenix will widdle this down to four.
How To Tune In
Coverage – 3 p.m. ET
Green Flag – 3:18 p.m. ET
TV – NBCSN
Radio – PRN
Distance – 334 Laps/501 Miles
Stage Lengths – 85/85/164
Playoffs – RD 3, Race 2
Defending Race Winner – Kevin Harvick
Joe Gibbs Racing Dominated The Spring Race But Still Looking For Just Their 3rd Fall Race Win In Lonestar State
Joe Gibbs Racing is on fire again. They’ve won 17 of the 33 races run this year including four of the seven playoff races. Now, they’ll look to tie Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday for most wins in a single season by one organization.
The good news is, they already won at the Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year. Denny Hamlin picked up his first victory of the season this past spring on the 1.5-mile track. It was a day that JGR would finish 1-4-10-12. But, other than Kyle Busch’s win in the spring race in 2018, Texas hasn’t necessarily been kind to them in the playoff race though.
JGR has won four of the last seven races on the Fort Worth area track, but three of which were in the spring race. Carl Edwards’ win for JGR in the November race in 2016 was their first in that respective race since Hamlin’s in 2010. Those are their only two victories in the past for the playoff race at Texas.
Can they earn a third win Sunday? Speeds show, yes.
If so though, it would put possibly another one of their three drivers into the Championship 4 for the final race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks.
Martin Truex Jr’s win last weekend in Martinsville puts him into the final round for the third time in the last four years. He’s very capable of going back-to-back in the win category in the Round of 8 too. Other than Talladega, he’s been in the top 10 in all the other playoff races run this year including three trips to victory lane. He also has seven top 10 finishes in his last nine Texas starts as well. The problem is, since his runner-up in the 2017 playoff race, he has one top 10 in his last three tries. On Friday, he was eighth and 10th on the single lap report but third and fifth on the five lap while being 10th and seventh on the 10 lap and 15 lap averages report respectively.
Hamlin, makes the most sense in that he’s a two-time Texas winner and has two top three finishes in his last four tries. He also has five top five finishes in his last six starts on the season too. But, his other two finishes in that time frame were 30th or worse though. Also, only three times in Texas history has a driver swept both races in a single season. Jimmie Johnson was the last to do so in 2015. Carl Edwards was the first in 2008. Hamlin, has done it too before as he won both races in 2010. Hamlin is +24 in the standings right now and just needs a solid top five effort. He was quickest in both practices on Friday on the 5-lap average chart as well. On the 10 lap, he was second and on the 15 lap he was sixth. That tells me he has a really fast short run car but it falls off a bit as the run goes on.
Kyle Busch is struggling on the season and has just eight top five finishes in his last 15 Texas starts. He won the spring race last year but was 15th, 19th, 17th and 10th in his other four starts. He may be +17 in the standings but if someone below him wins Sunday’s race, he could be in some trouble himself. Busch was 12th and 11th on single lap runs, 11th and sixth on five lap averages and 11th on the 10 lap chart.
Erik Jones could then play spoiler. He was fourth in each of his last three Texas starts and has five top four finishes in as many tries on the track in the XFINITY Series. He was fifth and ninth respectively on single lap speed, fourth and eight on the five lap chart and seventh on 10 lap averages.
Penske Struggled In Spring Race At Texas
Texas isn’t one of Penske’s better tracks. The last time that they won in NASCAR’s top division in the LoneStar state was 2014. The previous time before that was with Kurt Busch in 2009. The last time before that?
2003 with Ryan Newman.
That’s three wins…ever.
Furthermore, they’ve won just once since June 10 on the season as well. But, here they are, having all two of their three drivers still championship eligible heading to a track that honestly hasn’t been too kind to them in terms of victories.
Also, they were only 17-36-37 this past spring. Practice on Friday didn’t look much better.
Brad Keselowski was 24th and 14th on single laps, 19th and 23rd on five laps and 20th on the 10 lap average reports. Joey Logano was 15th and 21st on single laps, 17th and 15th on five laps and 17th on 15 laps. He has just two top five finishes in his last 18 starts on the season. Ryan Blaney was 23rd and eighth, 21st and ninth (5 lap) and eighth (10 lap) himself.
Logano may only have one top five finish in his last 16 starts on the season but he also has six top seven finishes in his No. 22 Ford in his last seven Texas stars too. Four of those six top seven’s actually resulted in a top three. This could be his week to come out of his slump. If not, he may not be able to defend his title in Homestead in a couple of weeks.
Blaney may be strong as well despite not having very good short run speed. What he lacks in playoff points, he could gain by a win. Blaney, was second in the playoff race at Texas last year, fifth last spring and sixth in the playoff race in 2017 too. He also had a strong car this past April before having an engine issue while running up front.
The only one I’m questionable about is Keselowski. He’s finished 33rd or worse in two of his last three Texas starts He was 12th in the other. Prior to that, he was sixth and fifth respectively in 2017 but 18th and 14th the year prior in 2016. This isn’t one of his better tracks and with him not being playoff eligible anymore, he may be an after thought.
Harvick Looking For 3rd Straight Playoff Win In Texas
This is Kevin Harvick time now. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has been so good in the past at Texas. In fact, Harvick is the two-time defending race winner in the annual playoff race. He’s scored three top two finishes in his last four Texas starts including 10 straight top 10’s in the Lonestar state as well.
Out of those 10 top 10’s are six top three’s including two wins, three runner-up’s and a third place run.
This is his weekend. He needs it. Harvick, is on the wrong side of the standings at -14 with two races remaining in the third round.
Luckily, he’s had 10 top eight finishes in his last 13 starts on the season in his No. 4 Ford including five top eight’s in the playoffs alone.
What was odd was, he was the worst SHR finishing driver in the spring race. His teammates were second (Clint Bowyer), third (Daniel Suarez) and seventh (Aric Almirola).
I think they can all be strong again on Sunday, but Harvick should be the top finisher this go around.
Harvick, was 10th and fourth on single lap speed in Friday’s sessions but sixth and fourth on five lap averages, second and third on the 10 lap chart and first and second on 15 lap averages. That says he has an opposite car as Hamlin. He’s quick on short runs but among the best as the runs go on.
Texas Not One Of Larson’s Best Tracks Either
Kyle Larson wasn’t looking forward to going to Martinsville last weekend. He also isn’t likely keen to be visiting Texas this week. Neither track have been good statistically for him in the past.
In terms of Texas, Larson has just three top five finishes in 12 tries. He was last (39th) this past spring and has six finishes of 23rd or worse.
While he has been on much better streak on the season (8 top eight’s last 12), this may not be Larson’s week.
Chevrolet hasn’t won in Texas since 2017 and Larson is -24 in the standings. Larson was 13th and 16th on single lap speeds, 13th and 11th on 5-lap averages, 10th and sixth on 10 laps and fourth on the 15 lap. His car comes in as the runs go on.
Chevrolet Needing Larson Or Elliott To Capitalize
Chevrolet is getting tired of not competing for championships anymore. From 2005 through 2016, the bowties captured 10 championships in the 12 year span.
If you go back to 1984 even and end it at 2016, Chevrolet had 23 tiles compared to Ford’s 5, Pontiac’s 3, Toyota’s and Dodge’s 1 a piece. At the time of Jimmie Johnson hoisting his seventh Cup championship trophy in 2016, Dodge and Pontiac were out of NASCAR while Ford hadn’t won a title since 2004.
It was pure domination.
Chevy had won at least 10 races for 16 straight seasons. They had won at least nine races every year from 1993 though 2016 too. In fact, from 2003 through 2016, they won 15 races in a single season in 12 of 14 years.
But, that’s when the bottom started dropping out.
They won just 10 times in 2017, their lowest since having nine victories in 2000. In 2018, they won only four times, their smallest amount since only scoring three wins in 1982. This year, they’ve rebounded to win seven times, but their 11 trips to victory lane the last two years combined is smaller than every single single’s total other than 2017 (10) from 2001 on.
They’ve also failed to put a single driver in the Championship 4 in each of the last two years and have only two drivers remaining in the playoffs with title aspirations. That’s why it’s so crucial for them to finish well this weekend at Texas and next in Phoenix. Unfortunately, they’re the bottom two of the standings with two races remaining.
Also, it could be good to get another one of their chartered organizations outside of Hendrick Motorsports to compete for a championship. Hendrick has won 12 of Chevrolet’s last 15 championships. But, the only other two teams to have won in that time frame are no longer in the Chevy camp.
Stewart-Haas Racing won in 2011 and 2014 and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005. The last current Chevy team other than Hendrick to win a title in NASCAR’s premiere series was Richard Childress Racing back in 1994. They won all six of Chevy’s titles between 1986 and 1994 with Dale Earnhardt at the helm for each.
Numbers support Larson to win the title though. Since the Championship 4 format was adopted from 2014 on, we’ve had a new champion from a new team each season. SHR (Kevin Harvick) won in 2014. Joe Gibbs Racing (Kyle Busch) won in 2015. Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) won in 2016. Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) won in 2017. Team Penske (Joey Logano) won last year.
The eight driver/team combinations left in the playoffs?
Team Penske (Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano), Joe Gibbs Racing (Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch), SHR (Kevin Harvick) and Ganassi (Kyle Larson).
Who’s Looking Like The Top Favorites For Championship 4 Now?
We’re seven races into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series postseason. That means there’s only two races remaining before we head to the Homestead-Miami Speedway to settle this year’s championship.
Right now, Martin Truex Jr. knows he will have a shot at a second title in the last three years via his win in last Sunday’s First Data 500 at the Martinsville (VA) Speedway. It was a dominating performance in his No. 19 Toyota. He led 464 of 500 laps run in the opening race of the Round of 8.
So, who else is looking good and who’s not?
In terms of looking good, I think Denny Hamlin has to be feeling pretty good about himself still. He finished fourth in his No. 11 Toyota earning his fourth top five finish in his last five races of the season. He’s +24 in the standings heading to a track (Texas) that he won at in the spring.
The other two drivers that are currently on the good side of the playoff standings right now I don’t think are feeling too hot. Kyle Busch may be +17 but Sunday was the first time since the spring race in 2015 that Busch didn’t grab a top five in Martinsville. He’s also only had two top five finishes during the playoffs.
Joey Logano did finish seventh in his No. 22 Ford but he has scored just one top five in the last 16 races run. He’s +14 in the standings.
But, it’s not just how bad they’ve been running lately to why I’m down on their championship aspirations, it’s how the guys behind them are running too and what’s coming up for them.
Kevin Harvick may not have won a race in the playoffs this year but he has won the last two Texas playoff races and has three top two finishes in the Lonestar State in his last four tries. Then, it’s to Phoenix where you can never bet against Harvick at. He trails Logano by 14 points.
Then, it’s Ryan Blaney who’s 15 points out. Blaney, has two top five finishes in his last three starts on the season and was runner-up to Harvick in last year’s playoff race at Texas. He had the car to beat on the 1.5-mile track in the spring race before an engine let go. Then, he was third at Phoenix back in March too.
To me, Harvick and Blaney could win each of the next two races and take two more spots into the final round to join Truex. That would leave one spot available to Hamlin, Busch, Logano, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
Larson, escaped Martinsville with his first top 15 finish since 2015 but is -24. Texas, isn’t necessarily a strong track for him as he likely would be faced with a must win at Phoenix.
Elliott, had an axel break in Martinsville and finished 36th. He’s -44 heading to a Texas track he’s just a solid top 10 driver at. That would force a must win at Phoenix for him too.
That’s why I feel like Hamlin is sitting good while Harvick and Blaney are driving the best out of the rest from there.
We’ve had seven playoff races run and in them, we’ve seen five different winners from four different teams. The only repeat winner is Martin Truex Jr. who won the first two races of the postseason and the last one last Sunday in Martinsville.
After has been wide open.
Chase Elliott closed down the first round with a victory on the ROVAL in Charlotte. Kyle Larson kicked off the second round with a win at Dover. Ryan Blaney then won a rain delayed race at Talladega a week later. Denny Hamlin concluded the Round of 12 with a win in Kansas.
Joe Gibbs Racing-Hendrick Motorsports-Chip Ganassi Racing-Team Penske-JGR-JGR all in the last five races.
Will Qualifying Matter? It Could
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams have an interesting scenario ahead of them for this weekend’s AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). See, Friday produced the only two practice sessions of the weekend around the 1.5-mile track. The only other on track time other than Sunday’s race will be qualifying on Saturday night.
But, with this format in the past, we’ve seen the top team elect to spend all of their time figuring on the best race setup and even qualifying on it. See, they feel like with these races being impound events, why not qualify what you’re going to race?
So, they’ve given away speed in return for not having to start the races behind. Just look at how quickly the drivers who went for all out speed dropped through the pack. David Ragan qualified second a few weeks ago at the Kansas Speedway and just a few laps into the race he was already down to 25th.
Also, look at the starting positions of the top 10 drivers in the finishing order at each of the last two 1.5-mile tracks. Both Las Vegas and Kansas had this same format.
Vegas, saw 24th place starter Martin Truex Jr. win. Three of the top five finishers came from 18th or worse. In fact, here’s the top 10 finishers’ starting spots – 24th, 3rd, 18th, 8th, 23rd, 19th, 14th, 15th, 22nd and 17th respectively.
Kansas, saw 23rd place starter Denny Hamlin win. Three of the top five finishers also came from 18th or worse. Here’s the top 10 finishers’ starting spots in that race – 23rd, 14th, 18th, 15th, 25th, 11th, 20th, 21st, 40th and 12th respectively. The top finisher for a driver who started in the top 10? It was Kyle Larson in 14th. He’s the only driver who started in the top 10 to even finish in the top 19.
So, Texas would seem simple right?
No in fact.
What if I told you that 15 of the last 17 and 17 of the last 21 races at Texas has seen the race winner come from a top 10 starting spot?
That’s why practice on Friday was interesting to say the least. Which direction do you go in?
Good Week For Sleepers
The favorites this week could struggle. Kyle Busch has just two top five finishes all season and hasn’t won since June 2. He wasn’t in the top 10 in any metric in practice on Friday. His teammate Martin Truex Jr. has already won in this round and may forego speed in Texas to work on a Homestead setup. Joey Logano has two top five finishes in his last 18 starts on the season and didn’t show much speed in terms of long run or short run pace in Friday’s practice sessions. Chase Elliott hasn’t scored a top five in any of his last five Texas starts and like Logano didn’t show much speed in practice. Kyle Larson doesn’t have good short run speed but has decent long run pace as showed in practice on Friday. But, he finished last at Texas back in March and has six finishes of 23rd or worse on the 1.5-mile track.
Those are most of the favorites. So, who other than Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick can win? It opens up a door for a sleeper winner.
Ryan Blaney finished second in this race last year and has three top six finishes in his last four Texas starts. He has good long run speed in his No. 12 Ford.
Erik Jones has finished fourth at Texas in each of his last three Cup starts and was in the top four in all five of his XFINITY Series races at Texas. He was fifth and ninth respectively on single lap speed, fourth and eight on the five lap chart and seventh on 10 lap averages.
Kurt Busch was second and fifth on single lap speeds, ninth and seventh on five lap, fourth and fifth on 10 lap and 15 lap respectively. He also has two straight top six finishes on the season and five straight top 10’s at Texas.
Clint Bowyer was second back in March and ninth last Fall but was first and third on short run speed, second and third on five laps, first in both 10 lap charts and third and first on the 15 lap averages. He has the best car.
Aric Almirola was seventh in the spring race, eighth in last year’s race and was sixth and first respectively on single lap speeds. He also was fifth and second (5 lap), sixth and fifth ( 10 lap) and second and third (15 lap) respectively too.
- 4 Harvick – Why not? He’s won each of the last two Texas playoff races and has three top two finishes in his last four Texas starts. His car not only has good short run speed, he has the top long run pace as well.
- 11 Hamlin – He won the spring race. Hamlin, also has four straight top five finishes scored the season. He had great short run speed but a bit of a fall off on long run pace.
- 14 Bowyer – He was second in March and ninth last November. Bowyer, also showed to have the best car in practice on Friday as well.
- 20 Jones – Why not a fourth straight fourth place finish at Texas? He showed top 10 speed in practice on Friday.
- 12 Blaney – His short run pace hurts him but Blaney earns his fourth top six finish in his last five Texas starts on Sunday.