After the first NASCAR playoff round concluded without either title contender winning a race, the Cup Series now moves to Round 2 with a Sunday race at Texas Motor Speedway.
We’re down to 12 playoff contenders after four were eliminated after last week’s exciting event in Bristol. Interestingly, two of the series’ most experienced drivers, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, were knocked out of playoff proceedings, along with Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick. In truth, Dillon is the only one of the four who didn’t come as a surprise, so suffice it to say the playoffs got off to an interesting start. Of course, most fascinating was watching three non-playoff drivers win round one races: Erik Jones at Darlington, Bubba Wallace at Kansas and most recently Chris Buescher at Bristol. Remember that any driver who wins a race automatically advances to the next lap. Maybe that regularity will start this week in Texas.
At the Texas Motor Speedway, the game is called speed. You can say that about every track, of course, but this is where it really stands out. The narrow freeway is a mile and a half long with long front and back stretches allowing cars to drive close to the 200 mile mark. I’ve always liked comparing it to Charlotte Motor Speedway and Atlanta before they changed banks. Prior to the 2021 season, the series hosted two events per year here each season, dating back to 2004. However, since NASCAR moved the last two All-Star races to TMS, there was room for just a one-point event these days.
With only Charlotte now listed as a similar track to Texas, and with only one race per season, there isn’t much relevant data that can be used to help handicap the EchoPark Automotive 500 Sunday car dealership. We can go back to May’s All-Star race and find out that Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag, followed by Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindric, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez, but of course this event runs in a multi-stage format that unique to the All-Star is racing. However, four months ago these five riders, all of whom remain in the 12-rider playoff field, showed they could run fast on this facility.
Looking back at the Charlotte Oval Points Race in May, Denny Hamlin was the day’s winner, leading 15 of the 413 laps. The best driver’s score for the Coca-Cola 600 went to Ross Chastain, who ousted Hamlin 121.3-114.9. However, Chastain struggled late after 153 laps in the lead and finished 15th. Tyler Reddick also had a strong run, leading 19 laps and earning a 113.6 drivers’ standings. Others who led many laps were Chase Elliott (86), Kyle Larson (51), Daniel Suarez (36) and Kyle Busch (36).
If you’re looking to factor in last fall’s race here, although of course that was before the new car was introduced that season, eventual series champion Kyle Larson was absolutely dominant, winning the race, leading 256 laps and earning a perfect drivers’ score of 150. Others Who did well on the day were William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick, all scoring 109.5 or higher.
If you look back at last year’s races in Texas and the 2022 All-Star event as well as the Charlotte race in May, you can see that there is a short list of drivers who have raced at this type of track recently have had fairly consistent success. Unsurprisingly, these riders are listed as favorites for Sunday, along with a few other breakaways. It should be an exciting race that will have most of the playoff title contenders feeling like they can grab that elusive win and advance into Round 3.
Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500 Statistical Breakdown
In terms of my “handicap” ratings, these are my top five drivers in TRACK RATINGS going into Sunday’s race:
Ryan Blaney – 122.3
Kyle Busch – 113.8 Kyle Larson – 111 Joey Logano – 102.6 Kevin Harvick – 99.9
Of those drivers, Busch and Harvick are no longer playoff contenders. If you read my playoff preview three weeks ago, you’ll recall that I pointed out some weaknesses in the playoff schedule and that surviving Round 1 would be the top priority for a few drivers, including Harvick and Busch . Blaney, the All-Star winner, has obviously run very well in Texas but will be without his crew chief for the next four races after a wheel came off in Bristol last week.
My title NAMES are quite different, with the top 5 looking like this:
Chase Elliot – 115.8
William Byron – 114.2 Ross Chastain – 113 Denny Hamlin – 110.2 Ryan Blaney – 109.4
As you can see, only Blaney appears on both top five lists so far. All four other drivers are current title contenders, hence my reasoning that this should be the first of the four playoff races where we see a title contender win and automatically move up.
Regarding my recent reviews, these are the top 5 on the road to Texas:
Chase Elliot – 109.1
Christopher Bell – 103.5 Denny Hamlin – 99.2 Kyle Larson – 97.2 Joey Logano – 93.8
All five of those drivers are still in the Championship hunt and while he remains the favorite for the series title, Hamlin was the opening favorite for this race at +550. Larson is next in line at +600, Bell at +700 and Elliott at +800. This shows that odds makers rely heavily on how a driver is running lately as opposed to the data at the track.
Final simulation results/My predictions
My first run of the simulation on Tuesday before practice and Saturday’s qualifying showed Ryan Blaney as the predicted winner for Texas, followed by Hamlin, Elliott, Kyle Busch and William Byron.
Saturday’s practice session was won by Austin Dillon, who is one of the four drivers eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. In the past, like last week, practice speed was the number one factor in race success in Texas. Although the track is tight, it’s sheer speed that pulls it off, more so than handling and/or strategy. Tyler Reddick, Alex Bowman and Joey Logano also had strong practice sessions, with Logano hitting 10-lap averages. A little later on Saturday, non-playoff contender Brad Keselowski had the best speed in qualifying, followed by Joey Logano, William Byron and Reddick. Unfortunately for Reddick, he was eliminated from the title fight last week following his struggles in Bristol. Keep in mind that his two streak wins this season came on road courses, not ovals. That’s one of the reasons why I won’t support him on Sunday despite his strong start to the weekend.
After updating the initial simulation with Saturday’s practice and qualifying results, my final simulation showed these top 5:
Tyler Reddick (+ 1000)
William Byron (+650) Joey Logano (+1000) Chase Elliott (+800) Ryan Blaney (+1000)
We’ve seen over the course of the first three races of the playoffs that all three drivers who have won races so far have been big climbers on the sim board after qualifying and practice sessions. With that in mind, these were the biggest changes from the first simulation for Texas:
Brad Keselowski + 12 places
Tyler Reddick +11 points Bubba Wallace +9 points Austin Dillon +8 points
Kevin Harvick -12 points
Aric Almirola -11 points Kyle Busch -7 points Martin Truex -6 points
Drivers predicted the simulation higher than usual: Reddick (1), Logano (3), Bowman (8), Keselowski (9)
Drivers predict less simulation than usual: Bell (14), Cindric (19), Harvick (20)
My latest predictions for Texas:
1st Logano 2nd Bowman 3rd Byron 4th Blaney 5th Reddick Longshot Driver: Chastain Driver to hide: Busch
Texas gets a handicap ability rating of C+ on my scale. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, speed is the issue here. However, speed and tight conditions often lead to on-track disasters, usually behind the front-runners. If you look at the last 14 TMS races, only two have received less than eight cautions. Wrecks can and will happen and drivers involved will be left out of the competition at these insane speeds. It will be a great race to watch and hopefully bet on as we should see some more normalized results at the front of the pack this week.